Tuesday, January 20, 2009

New Year's in Times Square

Happy New Year, Readers!

Sorry to take so much time off for the Christmas holidays, but I had to struggle with
dental surgery, some tax-related stuff that needed to be done by year’s end, and a major
research project picking a replacement Medicare Part D drug plan provider which will
(hopefully) save some money on drug costs. Once upon a time, being in one’s 60s only
required one to pick out a comfortable rocking chair. Now, one is required to be
something of a tax accountant and a health plan gourmet.

FANOGRAPH is supposed to be a blog about science fiction fandom, so it is about
time I said something more about my fannish experiences. This New Year’s Eve just past
gives me a good excuse to say something about my experiences in New York fandom
between 1967 and 1970, for it was through the influence of a fannish friend that I got to
spend New Year’s Eve in Times Square in warmth and comfort looking out through a
thick plate glass window as the calendar flipped over to a new year.

As I tell this story, I am going to mention the names of a lot of current and former
fans and others. I’m not doing this just to be a name dropper, but because it sets this event
in time and place. The last I heard, Ted White was living in Virginia. If you weren’t
around when Ted White was influential in New York fannish circles, besides editing both
AMAZING and FANTASTIC and writing a few SF novels, at least you should be aware
that this was happening in this time period I am talking about. (Oh, and Ted, I still think
By Furies Possessed is deserving of a fairer critical reading than it received at the time.)

While I was taking grad courses in technical writing and communications at R.P.I. in
Troy, NY, I met Tom Bulmer from Patterson, NJ, and from him I picked up something
of an impression of the organization of New York fandom. I got a Master’s and a few
courses towards a Ph.D. at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, far, far from New York City.
I finally moved to New York in the spring of 1967 looking for work and got to attend
some Lunarians meetings and some gatherings of FISTFA and Fanoclasts. So I soon got
to meet Frank Dietz, Elliott Shorter, Ted White, and Charles N. Brown, who had only
recently started publishing LOCUS. In fact, I attended one collating party and helped
assemble an issue. (I once had a nice collection of early issues, to, which I donated to the
Philadelphia Science Fiction Society to auction off to help pay for their Worldcon
bidding parties.) At first I hung around a lot with the Columbia University fans, who at
that included Eli Cohen, John Singer, Rick Kagan and his soon-to-be wife, Janet, and
others. Fred Lerner had recently graduated from Columbia, but I managed to meet him
as well. I was never close to Ted White and the FANOCLASTS (Arnie Katz and others),
as I wasn’t important enough in fandom to circulate in those circles. No Secret Master of
Fandom, I. But in 1973 or ’74 I DID sell my only professional story, “Local Control” to
one of the magazines Ted was editing, which delighted me.

As time went on, I grew closer to the FISTFA crowd, most of whom would gather at
Mike McInerney’s apartment on West 17th Street on Friday evenings until the dawn.
Besides Mike, I met there Dan Goodman, and Barbara Dodge(? – I’m unsure of her last
name), Earl Evers, Jan Slavin, and the artist Mike Hinge (with whom I remained close
friends with until his death a few years ago) and many others.

Mike’s apartment was a block or two west of Barney’s men’s store at 7th Avenue and
17th Street – and a world away from it. The building was in a Puerto Rican neighborhood
that made me, as a upstate college boy, very nervous. But the locals, sitting around in
their undershirts playing dominos and listening to loud Puerto Rican music, were used to
fans passing through their neighborhood and ignored us, as we were clearly no threat.
They probably would have laughed if they had known how uneasy I felt scooting up that
sidewalk to Mike’s place.

The apartment was a fourth or fifth floor walkup that must have been built in
Victorian times. The one bathroom on each floor was in the hall! I feared to use it – the
floor boards seemed weak to me and the other families on the floor that Mike shared the
bathroom with weren’t very clean compared to the way my mother maintained our
bathroom at home. The bathtub was in the kitchen next to the sink!! The plaster and
lathing of the walls had years ago sprung apart from the floorboards and roaches could –
and did! – easily scramble from one floor or apartment to another. Mike could have steam
cleaned his apartment once an hour and the roaches still would have been in evidence. I
never told my parents about the conditions my friends lived under; they would have had a
stroke! But it was a great lesson in tolerance for me; the fact that nice people who were
students/bookstore clerks/well-educated but in low-level, poor-paying jobs sort of people
had to live under conditions like that in Manhattan and endure them until they could
afford something better was a given I had never thought about.

I had never SEEN a roach until I moved to New York, although I HAD met one huge “palmetto bug” in my motel room in Cocoa Beach the night before I had my interview before getting a summer job with GE’s Apollo Support Division. Man, did I lift all my covers and blankets up on that bed!! Three New York roaches could have ridden on the back of that thing. I HATE
FLORIDA! ( Well, my first little apartment in Queens had no roaches, but the room in the house I later rented certainly did! And I learned to tolerate them by then .)

Speaking of nice people, Mike did something nice at one late-December get together.
He invited us all down to Bookmaster’s on New Year’s Eve. I had never spent New
Year’s Eve in Times Square. This was years before Times Square was cleaned up and
Disneyized. It was pretty seamy then for a green upstate college boy. I once saw a movie
in one of those low-level movie houses just west of Times Square and was too nervous to
really enjoy the tacky adventure film I saw. Had I seen “Midnight Cowboy” first, I
wouldn’t have gone at all! But seeing it all from the safety of a bookstore – well, who
could turn that down?

We all turned up at the store about 10:30 or 11:00 PM, if I remember correctly, and
the sidewalks were getting crowded already. There were other customers in the store, but
there were also several fans I already knew circulating around, plus friends of the other
bookstore clerks besides Mike. I must have looked at some of the books, but I remember
not buying anything. That was logical, because I was pretty nearly broke.
I left New York for Philadelphia for in February of 1970 for a new job and I was out
of work over the Christmas holidays of 1969, so I felt really down that night. I had not
landed the job in Philadelphia yet, so I had made no plans for New Year’s. I seem to
remember looking out through the window, feeling lonesome, watching the crowd spill
over into the street and the crowd swell until there was almost no room to move on the
sidewalk in front of Bookmaster’s.

Finally, Mike and the other clerks called out that the store was closing. We fans and
friends sort of helped the clerks politely sweep the potential customers out into the crowd
and then we watched the clerks lock us in. Abruptly, the crowd on the sidewalk froze in
place; there was no longer room to move around. The new year was coming!

We must have all cheered when the clock struck midnight! And then the clerks
unlocked the door, we all streamed out to various places or parties, and I went back to my
little furnished apartment in Queens, too depressed to talk my way into someone else’s
after-midnight party. But better times were coming. And that is another blog post!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Two Surprises

First of all, I hope you all had an enjoyable happy Thanksgiving 2008. We had a great evening with new friends I hope we repeat.

I had hoped to get a new post done about a week ago, but Real Life intruded in the form of a friend who needed help with a new resume and the death of our hot water heater and an emergency effort to get it replaced before it really started to leak enough to flood our cellar. I’m glad to report the cellar is now in no danger of flooding and our water is now hot enough to wash in without having to add some water heated on the stove to warm it up.

A few nights ago, Barbara Walters interviewed what she considered to be the ten most interesting people of 2008. It made me wonder how I would react to interview questions well-crafted to draw me out. For example, something like “What events in your life most surprised you?” Right now I want to mention two: the fall of the U.S.S.R. and the end of the Cold War and the relative neglect of the American space program after the success of the Apollo program. I was delighted by the first and greatly depressed by the second.

Odd as it sounds, I expected the Cold War to last my lifetime in one form or another. The only alternate I saw to periods of crisis alternating with periods of stalemate was a hot war of some sort. In the 1950s and early 1960s I believed in the potential of the typical SF sneak attack nuclear war, like in Philip Wylie’s Tomorrow or Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon. Living about 100 miles northwest of New York and around 50 miles west of Stewart Air Force Base, I fully expected to be able to see some of it. I even once had a graphic nightmare of burned refugees from New York pushing their way in through our kitchen door. Brrr!

Then I went away to college in 1958 at S.U.N.Y. Albany in Albany, New York. My dorm was only two or three miles from the state capitol where Governor Nelson Rockefeller and his wife and kids lived when he was in town. I was sure that Albany was worth a bomb should a big war take place. Several times there was a fire late at night somewhere in the neighborhood around the college and the fire sirens blew. I would wake up and agonize over the possibility of an attack. Should I turn on the radio to see if everything was okay? Or should I just ignore it and try to get back to sleep? I always turned on the radio to check.

Thankfully, the Cuban Crisis seemed to chase those fears away. Lucky for me, as Ulster County is just about downwind of everywhere, especially those missile silos in North Dakota, and while my father was a very strong, tough, and handy guy and we had a big, deep basement, I didn’t really expect to survive a nuclear war – and that was long before Carl Sagan and co-authors published their findings on nuclear winter.

I remember once reading a colorful historical novel entitled Ram which involved the wars between England and France in the 1700s. The protagonist’s first name was Ramilles, after a French town where he was found early in the century as a little orphan by some British soldiers, one of whom adopted him He grew up to be a soldier and adventurer fighting in several of the hot and cold wars between England and France, including serving in India as a young officer, until he died an old man near Fort Pitt during the French and Indian War. If I remember correctly, he gots to see or meet the young George Washington before he died. That long series of wars was the theme of his life. I fully expected we would have had to race the Soviets to the moon and Mars and who knows where else. Little did I suspect that the Soviet system was more brittle in many, many ways than ours was; a lousy system of succession, for one thing, and the candidates kept getting older! The concept of nuclear winter plus Star Wars helped tip the scales against the Soviets as well. In a way, it’s sad they didn’t last a bit longer or at least have made lots more noise about pushing on with their space program. Then Nixon could have complained about a “moon shot gap” and that might have kept our post-Apollo program going.

I’ve been very depressed for years by the long twilight of the American space program. I’m one of those who feel that in this case, as in so many other things, it’s all Nixon’s fault. True, Lyndon Johnson tried to run the Viet Nam War and the Great Society at the same time and Nixon felt he had to cut back. I read a tell-all book about the space program several years ago (it’s buried in a box where I can’t get my hands on it tonight) that put forth the theory that we have Casper Weinberger to thank that we have anything like a Space Shuttle AT ALL; Nixon was going to kill the whole damn Shuttle program, it claimed. So we do have a Shuttle of sorts, but the Shuttle we have is a turkey, not an eagle. But thanks, Casper, anyway.

I remember seeing many concept paintings in aerospace magazines of the time what the shuttle should have been. Picture a larger version of a Boeing 707 with the upper stage of the shuttle riding on its back, probably with a big rocket or a bundle of solid rockets attached to the rear end of the Shuttle. The big jet would have been effectively Stage I, the fat liquid-fueled rocket or the bundle of solids would have been the Stage II, and the business end of the Shuttle would have been Stage III. The whole conglomeration would take off from a mucking LONG runway, lumber up to around 30,000 feet or so, and the second stage would have beeen fired off the back of the big jet. (Or maybe the upper stages would have been blasted off the front of the big jet with small rocket charges and dropped a few hundred feet before the second stage ignited.)Yes, it would have looked something like the heavy lifter that is used to ferry the Shuttle back to Florida when it lands out west. In fact, the whole operation would have been much like that goofy James Bond movie in which a Shuttle gets hijacked right off the back of its heavy lifter. Remember that fiascoof a movie? Not as bad as “Octopussy”, but close. Oh, Roger Moore, you have a lot to answer for!

The problem was that the airlift concept must have cost too damn much to pull off during the Nixon administration, so we got the smaller and inefficient “just as good as” external tank design Shuttle we have now. With decent funding and the heavy-lift launch vehicles that were already on the drawing boards during the Apollo years (like the Nova) we surely would have a nice, cozy base on the moon by now.

Well, a case can be made that the money NOT spent on an ambitious space program was well-spent by President Reagan on driving or scaring the Soviets into bankruptcy. But I don’t miss the air cars and flying belts promised me as a kid as I miss that moon base!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Forge of History (Continued)

(Sorry, Readers! I misunderstood this blog’s editing software, so you received the first half of the preliminary version of my second post. Here’s the second half.)

Well-to-do tourists had been coming to hotels in the mountains northwest of New York by rail since the late 1800s, but by the 1920s and 1930s recent immigrants started to come by bus and car. In an era before air conditioning, the air was fresher and cooler in summer compared to the blistering streets of New York. Some local Jewish farmers, many also recent immigrants, started to take in boarders.

The “milk farms” grew in popularity. Soon, the boarders began providing more income than the cows and the milk farms became hotels. Others built clusters of little cabins called “bungalows” that families could rent by the week or month. The husbands would send their wives and kids to the mountains in the summer and they would work all week and come up for weekends. Still other built camps where kids could be sent to spend part of the summer in the country.

Early on, there wasn’t much to do at a hotel or bungalow colony but relax or eat.
As one who worked as a waiter and busboy for years in the Catskills, I can assure you that huge meals were definitely included! Organized activities, expanded facilities, and entertainment came later. But soon, older vaudeville and nightclub stars came to entertain in the Catskills and young talent, like Jerry Lewis and others, blossomed there. The cultural heritage from the Catskills was not hotel architecture or fine dining (I can assure you of that, too!), but comedians and comedy. Soon the hills rang with a million jokes.

It was a great place and time for a teenager to grow up. The hotel dining room operations needed raw labor to keep their guests fed and the local kids needed money for cars or college. It sure beat working for one’s parents or on a farm! After dinner, the kids were on their own until breakfast. If you knew someone who could get you in, you could drive off to a bigger hotel and see shows with big name comedians or other entertainers. Or you could wander around the streets of the small mountain towns and try to meet girls up from the city with their families.

Two points I want to make clear. First, all this I write about took place in the southern part of the Catskill Mountains. Up north, in the real Catskills around Tannersville, where the mountains were taller and wilder, was ski resort country. I know almost nothing of what went on up there. The resorts that catered to an Eastern European Jewish customer base, like my family and my relatives, were in the Borsht Belt nearer New York. In the early days before the newer roads were built, the Borsht Belt hotels were a four-hour or five-hour drive from New York. Later, after the New York State Thruway (I-87) and the new Route 17 were built, the trip dropped to around two or three hours.

Second, I’m sure there were other ethnic resort enclaves around New York at that time – but I don’t know anything about them, either. I once heard that there were some Irish resorts east of us around Wallkill, NY, but I’m totally in the dark about them. Where did New York Italian families spend summer weekends in the 1950s and 1960s? Around Atlantic City? Maybe someone who reads this will know and comment about it.

But if you are old enough to remember much of the 20th Century, you know that change is the theme or the sub-theme of everybody’s life. The forge of history has pounded out many fantastic improvements but also delivered some nasty whacks. The last time I visited Kerhonkson, most of the stores had been torn down or had fallen down and trees were starting to grow up through the blacktop of the parking lot at the north end of town. It was like a scene out of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or any one of dozens of post-disaster SF novels. Where had all the tens of thousands of tourists gone?

What killed the Catskills was not a disaster, but success. Many of the larger hotel owners made enough money to buy and open hotels in Florida. Their summer customers followed them there in the winters and eventually retired there when they grew older. Those hard-working husbands who used to send their families to the Catskills? They and their wives taught their children to work and study hard and they got good educations and build fine careers. Those grown-up kids, somewhat more sophisticated, affluent, and demanding then their parents, stopped coming to the Catskills when fares in shiny jet planes became cheap enough to fly them off to vacation spots in the Caribbean for little more then what it would cost to stay in the Catskills. And where would YOU rather vacation: St Croix or Kerhonkson, NY?

The children of the smaller hotel, camp, and bungalow colony owners got good educations, too. They had other careers in mind instead of taking over the family businesses. Lucky were the owners of these smaller attractions who sold out before the bottom fell out of the Borsht Belt resort market. The side roads around towns like Greenfield Park, Fallsburg, Loch Sheldrake, and Monticello are lined with the ruins of now-abandoned resorts that are vanishing into the bushes.

When I was a waiter and a busboy working in both big and small resorts around those towns, I assumed that other ethnic groups would move into the Catskills sooner or later. I expected the Catskills to turn Puerto Rican someday. Later, in my grad school days, I saw lots of ultra-Orthodox Jews moving into the area. But if any of the more recent immigrants to New York have filtered into the Catskills, I haven’t heard about. I live in a suburb of Philadelphia now and I don’t read the New York Times or the Middletown Daily Record these days. The green woods, the fresh air, and the mountain scenery is still there, but everybody has air conditioning now, not to mention digital recreational resources beyond anything the 1930s or 1940s could imagine. Maybe the attraction just doesn’t exist.

But I could be wrong! On warm summer nights the streets of Monticello could be seething with crowds of South Chinese, Salvadoran, or West African teenagers checking each other out and madly texting each other while their parents enjoy the new ethnic restaurants and comedy clubs. Yes, there have to be comedy clubs. After all, it’s the Catskills!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Forge of History

I want to talk about the part of New York State I grew up in, which was a resort area in the southern part of the Catskill Mountains usually known as the Borsht Belt.

I'm sure that when Hillary Clinton was running for a seat as one of New York's senators that some called her a carpetbagger. People with longer memories or a historical perspective remember that she wasn't the first. Robert Kennedy also won a New York senate seat back in the 1960s, back in the days when helping the poor people of Appalachia was a big issue.

Sometime after he was elected, a big bill to aid Appalachia was being put together, with many states getting pieces of the pie. To the surprise of many, RFK spoke up, urging some of the money be allocated to some of the counties in New York State he represented. Appalachia, he pointed out, did not stop at the West Virginia -- Maryland border; there were blighted and neglected mountain regions running northward, even north of the New Jersey -- New York border.

Now, some might have thought RFK was stretching a point to buy votes. Poverty on the level of West Virginia? Almost within sight of the Hudson River? But it was a good call; RFK's staffers had done their homework. Some of the counties surprisingly close to the New York suburbs are poor, poor, poor even today. They may be relatively poorer today than they used to be in 1950s, 1960s, and part of the 1970s because the once-booming resort industry, which had been attracting customers from New York's Jewish community and growing since the 1930s, suffered a major crash that has left the ruins of abandoned hotels, camps, and bungalow colonies scattered through parts of Ulster, Sullivan, and Orange Counties.

Go find a map website or a paper road atlas and look for a map of the area in Ulster County around a little no-stoplight hamlet called Kerhonkson, NY. I grew up there in a house up on a hill above a major highway, Route 209, and about a half a mile from the town. Route 209 runs from a town on the Hudson River called Kingston, meanders southwest across the New York--Pennsylvania state line at Port Jervis, and finally ends in central Pennsylvania. It's a snake of a highway, very scenic, but a brutal drive if one is used to driving wide and relatively flat Interstates.

In my pre-teen and early teen years I used to walk down the shoulder of 209 or in the concrete ditches alongside the two-lane concrete highway and carry home groceries from the small stores in town. The town had concrete sidewalks, about as wide as standard sidewalks are now. Would you believe me if I told you that there were times in the summer during "the season" when I was literally pushed off the sidewalk into the street by the crush of adult tourists in town from nearby hotels and bugalow colonies?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Since I noticed in WIRED that blogging is so almost-pre-Y2K, I felt I had to start one.

My name is Sanford Zane Meschkow. I grew up about 100 miles north of New York and I have been a potential science fiction fan since a little after I learned to read and an active fan since the early 1960s. So I remember an era of science fiction fandom, especially New York and Philadelphia fandom, that is soon going to fade from living memory. Excuse me while I drop a few names.

Hey, I helped collate one of the early issues of that great newszine, LOCUS , before Charles N. Brown moved it to the West Coast. I helped several fans move belongings out of James Blish's apartment when he was moving to England. I was president of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society early in the 1970s when I invited Keith Laumer to be our Principal Speaker and had Kelly Freas do a portrait of him for the program book. (I hope one of his kids still has it -- it was great!) I have my very own Harlan Ellison story. And I remember when Star Trek fans tore the world of SF fandom in two! Yes, I saw a little fannish history and it might be of some interest to some of you.

And I also worked for a short time in the space program ("Pass the word! Secret Minuteman launch tonight at 8:00 PM!"). I want to tell you all something about that. Zero Defects, everybody! Did you know that some of the Apollo contractor community used to say that "NASA" stood for "Northern Alabama Salvation Army" or "Never Absolutely Sure of Anything"?

So, what do I intend to do in this blog?? Well, for one thing, preserve some history of science fiction fandom as it was a generation ago before blogs, e-mail, print on demand, word processing, laser printers, and most desktop IT in general. I also want to comment on some favorite books, authors, and trends. (For example, I think Isaac Asimov's effort to link his Foundation and robot series was a big mistake.)

I also want to react to the sciencefictionalization of our culture -- TV ads are full of SF themes! -- and shed a few tears about the space program we don't have.

I plan to ramble on about my life, too. I remember the lost world of the Catskill Mountain Borsht Belt hotels in the 1960s and 1970s and I would like to comment on why and how they passed away. I once worked for a not-for-profit research outfit called The Franklin Institute Research Laboratories in Philadelphia and saw and did some interesting things, including an effort during the Carter administration to get solar energy off the ground. I learned what it was like to have people eagerly crowding around you because they think you can get them a solar energy project development grant. It can go to your head! Perhaps under the Obama administration the days of the National Solar Heating and Cooling Information Center I worked at will come back. But I hope they won't repeat our mistakes. And I once worked for a publication that served the amusement park, carnival, and theme park industry. Wow, were those trade shows fun!!
Just one of the things I want to comment on is how the desktop computer revolution sucked up some of the creative energy that should have gone into the post-Apollo space program, but how modern hardware and software makes small and cheap commercial space programs possible. So don't let me forget that. And I want to tip my hat to absent friends, like old-time radio programs I remember (Gunsmoke, Space Patrol, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet [ did Robert Heinlein have something to do with that program or did he just sell the name? Does anyone know for sure?], the B-Bar-B Riders, etc.). And maybe do an appreciation of Jean Shepherd, who used to broadcast on WOR in New York before he published in Playboy. Weirdly enough, I feel that some of Rush Limbaugh's on-the-air style comes from Ol' Shep. Perhaps they just share a Midwest storyteller's style -- or did El Rushbo swipe some of Ol' Shep's shtick? Well, there's a lot to cover.

So, here's hoping I can attract the attention of some of you out in cyberspace and enlighten or amuse you. For those of you that find me, comments are invited!