a Flashback Friday presentation from 2019

There I was in a cab headed to Brooklyn. The Pakistani cab driver asked me where I was from, and I negligently gestured out the window, “here.” “No. that can’t be. you don’t sound anything like us.”

I had been away for a long time.

It’s true. There’d been a lot of influences in the fifty years since I lit out for New England. I’d lived in Massachusetts and Maine long enough as a young man to influence my speech patterns. But not enough to fool professional linguists who chuckled, and told me that my New York could run, but could not hide. So I laughed with the cabbie on the matter of our relative origins. He’d lived NYC for most of the fifty years I had been gone.
By the time he dropped me off, we had discovered a bond. We were both “from” the same neighborhood – Washington Heights- in Manhattan. He lived less than four blocks along Saint Nicholas Avenue from where I grew up.
The City isn’t only big. It can be small too.


 I grew up in Washington Heights, where the street toughs chanted, ” If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” But of course, being street toughs, they “played and paid.”

That doesn’t mean that the advice is bad. It’s just that the ones chanting it as a mantra on the corner took it as another free verse cant that you used on the street in the evening; just another way of saying ” Yo Momma!” So in later years, I avoided going back to avoid the sad mantra of who was working, on the street, doing well, or just sadly in prison. 

Thanks to my father’s quick realization, we moved before I had an opportunity to learn more about my peers’ street smarts. But the new neighborhood was a challenge. In Washington Heights, if you weren’t a street tough, you worked after school for your money. Us Supers kids ( our dads were superintendents of large buildings) knew the routine. Come home from school, change, sweep and mop the lobby, clean up the mail area, help our fathers do repairs, and carefully defer all negotiations with tenants to our parents. If you were going to the movies, hopping on the train to go downtown, or just going to the candy store, you were doing it on the money you had earned. 

In the new neighborhood, it wasn’t that way. My peers received money weekly by the grace of being dutiful children of beloved parents. They were privileged. They never understood that I had to work or hustle to get enough money together to go out on a Saturday.

Date expectations were also different. By sixteen, most of my peers in the old neighborhood were aware of the joys and consequences of sex. That does not mean they were experienced, just that the knowledge was there. In the new neighborhood, they were dangerously naive. Negotiating what was acceptable on a date followed different rules as different things were expected or allowed. Being lazy about the rules in either locale could lead to long periods of painful repentance. Although in Washington Heights, the payback might have been getting chased by older brothers intent on protecting their sister. In the new, it was giggles in the library and no further dates. Parents were a fierce moral force in the Heights, but in the new neighborhood, only my Jewish friends seemed to have parents actively involved in what their kids were getting up to.

By the time I was expelled from high school, I had learned to navigate both styles of social code with no more thought than helping my mother sort laundry into different loads for the washer. Then, at age sixteen, my friend Bart introduced me to Greenwich Village, and life changed again. The Village was tremulant. It had a tempo and rhythm lacking where I had lived. Other areas in the city seem passive and accepting of whatever the status quo offers. In the Village, it was customary to question the social order – you might not be able to change it, but it was expected that you would ask that perpetually annoying question, “Why?”

Looking back at all this, as an anthropologist, I tend to want to start examining my field notes, photos, and recordings. But, of course, I was a teen, and they don’t exist.

The time involved was not multiple decades; it was a bit less than a single decade, with journeys that crossed class, cultural venues, various ethnicities, religions, and languages. Moreover, you could physically transit between them in an hour’s ride on the IRT subway.

Curiously this whole Hodge Podge held together as we all considered ourselves New Yorkers. I now know this is not unique to New York City but is a characteristic of complex cities worldwide.

So to switch tempo – how does this upbringing prepare you for life in a small community? It may not be as much of a reach as many may think. In macro terms, you are living in a great multi-community. But you reside in a small section of it. Unless your local community is a complete bedroom to you, it has a pace, institutions, calendar, and history. Perhaps it has a well-known border: the tracks, the highway, or the bridge. People living adjacent seem to think they are better than those living in your area. They have a post office, and your does not. Their area has a name, but your has a nicer one.

Little community, or big community, we always find ways to differentiate ourselves. Division is easy for humans. It’s the ability to find common ground that’s the real trick. 

Like us, New Yorkers. Despite uptown/ downtown, Upper East Side/ Lower Eastside, and so on, we know that we are better than those across the Hudson in Jersey.

It’s self-evident.


My family was not well to do. So the 1950s found us living in Washington Heights with my father, a small-time entrepreneur of a thousand ventures, working as a building superintendent – a “super” in New York City parlance. The building had gone up sometime in the 1920s when the neighborhood had been fashionable. And many of the tenants had lived there since. There were niceties found on buildings of the era you don’t see anymore – louvered doors for summertime and large storage areas so tenants could change their suites of furniture seasonally.
As my father described, there was the opportunity for much “cumshaw, and bakshish.” But, you ask, what were these? They were terms from China and the “Far East” describing small gifts that eased the path of commerce.
Merchant sailors learned these terms on their first voyages to Chinese or other Asian ports. They are so much nicer than their English counterparts. A bit of cumshaw lubricates transactions. Three showerheads on the fourth floor need replacing, but Mrs. Rubins will be first. That little envelope she shoves into my shirt pocket? Well, that’s just cumshaw. Indeed, my father was paid to do all the showerheads, but the cumshaw determined priority. As I pointed out, cumshaw was the lubricant of transactions. To be clear, If offered opposing bids, my father declined; there were rules to the system. Violate the regulations, and the system of trust would break down. This separated cumshaw from mere bribes; the highest bidder did not win.

I learned to participate in the system as soon as I was old enough to run errands and do small tasks. ” Please, go to my storage, and fetch the red suitcase with the foreign travel stickers on it.” Money for these services was nice, but nicer still was the wealth of small objects that came my way; the small teak chest I was given, the genuine pith helmet I paraded around in, and the theatrical prop scimitar I used to repel pirates with savagely. My benefactors had worked in theatre, traveled far east, and visited India under the Raj.
Much of the cumshaw came my way as bits and pieces of knowledge. I first learned about French Provincial furniture by changing the Scottish lady’s furniture ensemble for summer. Others introduced me to the sculpture in their apartments. I first learned about prints, watercolor, silk screening, modernism, and surrealism. I saw my first Dali and learned to appreciate the difference between signed and ascribed work.
I also learned to have empathy for people who had all these material marvels but little else in their life.

Eventually, my father was offered a job as a maintenance manager for a large real estate company, and we moved to a new neighborhood. New opportunities for cumshaw and bakshish presented themselves at my father’s new job. But the educational opportunities were fewer.


I’ve frequently been accused of being less than jovial, but not quite irascible. One friend from Brooklyn has advised me that it derives from being a New Yorker. Mindful that this is a trait he seems to share with me, he distracts the conversation before it descends into an unfair comparison of Manhattenite versus Brooklynite.
Manhattan, or Brooklyn against any other borough of the City, is always a fun game. But fun game or not, the game of comparing one borough against the other eventually becomes an argument.
Of course, Staten Island almost always loses out. Habitues of both Manhatten and Brooklyn agree that Staten Island is a part of Jersey.

The mystery of this conversation is that the two of us put our membership in the New York City collaborative behind us well over half a century ago. We both shot out of the cannon’s mouth on our way to New England. In the passing years, we’ve grown, and the “New York” in us has settled into the background.
But the two halves of a critical mass meet when we get together, on the phone or in person, and the chain reaction starts.
We only met and became friends in the nineties. However, despite growing up in a vast city and not knowing each other, we occupied Greenwich Village simultaneously, knew the same people, had similar experiences, and haunted identical places like the Minetta Tavern and Cafe Rienzi.
So during one of our Christmas conversations, don’t stand too close, or you could find yourself shivering on the corner of MacDougall and Bleeker on a cold winter evening while the two of us yammer on about associates who were making it.
Be kind. If you happen upon this temporal/spatial transposition cranking up like Doctor Who’s Tardis in need of a tune-up, separate us. To us, it might seem like a big elaborate present all tied up with a bow – we would be home. But if you get caught in the backdraft and find yourself with us in the Village, I advise that you stay close, follow us, and after the last gig is over and the bars close, we’ll drop you off on our way to the all-night deli with the best bagels in the City.


City dwellers can have the world at their feet on the roof. I remember working on the top of our building in Washington Heights and scanning a vast panorama. Even on a hazy day, I could look south towards the Empire State Building, east towards the East River, west towards the Pallisades and Hudson river, and north towards Connecticut. If you were careful, you could kneel on the parapet and see all the activity in the streets below.
We usually kept the access to the roof locked. But in some buildings, the roof was populated with sunbathers, picnics, and an occasional party. If there was a fault in open access to this top of the world, it was the risk of the hatchway door slamming shut behind you and locking you out there. Then the loud calls for help and the pounding on the doorway would echo through the stairwell.
The territory of the roof was not all flat. It was interrupted by the protruding tops of firewalls, ventilation shafts, utility housing, and vents. Near the hatchway was the elevator house, which contained the cables and motors which loomed over the long elevator shaft that extended below the basement into a pit.
Cleaning the elevator pit was one of my assigned tasks when I got old enough. The lost bills and change were my loot for toy store expeditions. I was strictly forbidden from entering the elevator house. Even when locked out so the elevator could not operate, it was a dangerous part of the rooftop territory.
I saw a canyon view of the world most of the time. You could look down the sweep of Broadway bounded by tall structures, walk to the intersection, turn and see a similar vista. Sometimes you could see to the river. But to view an unimpeded horizon, you needed that perspective that was only available when you seemed to be on top of the world.

A New York State Of Mind

It cost me a dear relationship. Recently it provoked a blur of neck swiveling as a coworker’s head whipped around to look at me in amazement. What was it? My “New York”
You, out there in the fancy kitchen, you chuckle. But you’re just like me. Thought it was castoff years ago, didn’t you? But no, if we got together over “caffee” the rhythms of speech, the feeling out as to which neighborhood we came from, that would all return. Going out to dinner, the body language as we walked through a crowd, stood on a train platform waiting, or a thousand other things would all be “tells.”
But it’s not some modular thing that we can add or subtract at will. In telling moments, like altercations on the street, it floods back. Whoa, altercations? I mean confrontations. Get into someone’s face in a big way – “whadda ya mean that’s your F’in cab!” toe to toe smashups.

So it doesn’t matter if you are not from Washington Heights ( we can’t all be, after all); you might be from Brooklyn, Lower East Side, or the Bronx.
You thought it all nicely tucked away in a box. But you know you can take the kid out of New York, but you can’t take the New York out of the kid.


Tourist buses were a frequent sight on the streets of Greenwich Village. We, the proud habitues, gave them a salute in various colorful ways—some by flashing the middle finger salute, others by playfully spinning about and displaying the nether regions. Many of us stood together in groups and went “ooh” and “ah” at the faces set against the windows. The drivers were pointing out, “…and there they are folks…genuine beatniks!” The people on the busses were from so far out of town that they really wouldn’t have known the difference between mid-town and the Village if the driver didn’t tell them. We, however, made much of our income from out-of-towners and desired that they get their money’s worth – while entertaining us.
There was Jerry. Jerry made a bit of cash as a barker in front of a lowlife basement establishment dealing in third-rate folk music and worse coffee. Walls and ceiling were painted black but lit with third-hand theatrical lighting that emphasized that here were the Bohemians. From down the street, you could hear his patter ” Step right up, step right up! See 49 female Viennese dentists drilling on our stage!…yes, forty-nine dentists 48 lovely costumes. Watch out for that first Step down, sir; it’s a doozy.”
Down the way was Sue. Sue would collar out-of-town couples ( couples only) and chat them up. Soon for drinks, she’d be showing you the sights, sounds, smells, and experiences of a genuine Village Saturday night; cheap. The tour frequently wound up at some westside dive bar over by the Hudon River like The Loose Caboose. Surprise!
Folks like me would have spent all our energy on our evening sets at our regular round of coffee houses. By 2 AM, we were laid back and experimenting with stuff to the “too blasted to care” crowd at the Why Not, Dragons Den, or other lower-tier basket houses – what was put in the basket after the set was what we got paid. Surprisingly, the drunks in the midnight to four AM choir could be very generous.
Sometime after four things closed down, the habitues gathered in places like the little all-night diner on Sixth Avenue. Then we wandered home to sleep till noon. As we were getting on the subway, we were mingling with the early morning crowd going to work; two lifestyles pretty much the antithesis of each other, but side by side in a city that did not ever sleep.

Sailors English: cumshaw

The word Cumshaw derives from a Chinese word for “grateful thanks.” Cumshaw was a late 18th or early 19th century add to a sailor’s vocabulary picked up on voyages to China. It can reference a gift or payment for a service. I know that some people refer to it as a bribe. But the way I learned of it from my father and other mariners, it was a sort of lubricant between cooperating parties. Sometimes cash is exchanged, but often its goods or services. I need something, and you need something. We reciprocate after agreeing on the value of the goods or services we are exchanging. Something closer to a grateful gift than a blatant bribe.
I learned about this early in my life. I was my father’s weekend and summer apprentice at his primary job site, and a host of other smaller jobs that he always seemed to be asked to do. He had come ashore the year I was born after years at sea. There was little about marine power plants that he could not fix, and he put that knowledge to good use repairing and maintaining anything that needed power. This Included commercial power plants, apartment house heating systems, propulsion systems in fishing vessels, and anything for which he could find a service manual. Among my earliest memories are those of days spent handing him tools as we worked on fishing vessels, and re-tubing old boilers.
Lots of this was just straight pay for the job. But, by age nine, I had my sea legs because Nick Carreras and his son were out on those charter fishing boats we maintained. We rarely paid. Cumshaw.
Deep-sea fishing was the closest Nick Carreras was going to get to the sea, so we did lots of it. When things got bad at home, my father would tell mom that he was going down to the hiring hall and look for a ship; if he did, he never found one. Instead, we’d head out on a boat for a day of fishing — fair or foul weather.
As the years went on, my father worked his way into a working supervisory position for an owner of multiple offices and light industrial buildings. Now he could be all over the City. New York then was still THE premier seaport, and mariners from all over the world came ashore there. Where ever Nick Carreras went in New York City, there seemed to be a network of former shipmates or other mariners who had swallowed the anchor. They all established their curriculum vitae by mentioning which lines and ships they had served on, when and curious things about the ports they had visited. The particulars of their lives at sea set serious business could proceed.
More lucrative were the connections with the businesses located in the buildings. My father and his crew of workers maintained the buildings. But, as any New Yorker will tell you lots of little, and not so little things were optional and open to negotiation. My father was a master at this sort of negotiation, having learned the basics in the Merchant Marine. Now he set about polishing those skills in his home city. By the sixties, a pattern developed. My father left the house dressed for business in a tailored suit, silk tie, diamond-studded cuff links, and diamond pinky ring. He drove a late model car; he came to prefer Caddy’s then T-Birds. Once at work, he’d make the rounds, descend into the basement, and change into khaki shirt and pants. Then he was ready to commence his daily work routine. At the end of the day, he’d change back into the suit and drive home.
Almost every day had some time dedicated to checking in on some of his outside clients: Haberdashers, Jewelers, dentists, butchers, shoe stores, and more. Periodically, you’d hear, “Nick, could you do ( add the name of service here).” My father would take note and schedule the service for a Saturday, Sunday, or evening. When I was visiting home in New York, I’d participate in these activities. I never heard mere filthy lucre mentioned. Most of these were old established relationships, and they and my father understood each other. “Nick, drop by sometime, I have something new in stock that would look great on you.” “Nick, I have a brooch with rubies that would be wonderful for Mimi ( my mother).” everyone involved understood the quid pro quo.
You could fall off the cart with my father. Haggling was one way to do this, not keeping your word was the other. It was also not all economic. It could also be about years-long relationships. Once, I asked my dad about what he’d receive from a particular job we were doing – “it’s just a favor,” he replied.

When My Dad died, I was the one who went through his papers. The tax documents told one story, the Italian shotguns, bespoke suits, hand-stitched shoes, and other things told another. Via the informal economy, my father had done well. His actual annual income from his job was very modest.
The foundation for this life had been laid down just like a ship from the keel up. His first voyages as a teenager on the Dollar Steamship lines had taken him around the world. Before he turned twenty-one, He’d been on two round the world cruises and several shorter passages.
My father introduced me to the term cumshaw at about age nine; about the same time, I began to pick up Spanish curse words from him.

Cumshaw. It’s a useful word for a sailor.

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