July 2008 Archives
I had a wonderful great aunt named Fay Leshner who was born in 1908 and died in 1987. She was my maternal grandmother’s older sister. She lived in the Elmhurst section of Queens and was stout and wacky–I once described her to an apprehensive college roommate, who was from Montana and about to meet her for the first time, as “a female Dom DeLuise,” though that description did her a disservice. (She was heavy, but not unattractive.)
Aunt Fay, though she worked in a dress shop, belonged in vaudeville: She played accordion and harmonica, talked like Bert Lahr, and loved crude jokes. One of her favorites: Pretending to command an imagined orchestra, she’d say “Give me an A,” hum the note, then say “Give me a C,” hum the note, and then say “Give me an S”–after which she’d make a loud farting noise: the sound that an “S,” that is, “ass,” makes. Get it?
Here is a characteristic glimpse of her in action, playing accordion (center), while her husband, Sam (left), plays violin, and my grandmother, Tessie (right), joins in on autoharp. (These are grabs from 8-mm home-movie footage shot by my grandfather, Eli Fuchs, and digitized by my brother, Ted.)
Aunt Fay died a few days after Thanksgiving in 1987. Five days after that, her lone son, my cousin Barry, and his wife, Lisa, had a baby daughter. The girl was named Fay in her grandmother’s memory. Some amount of time later, the extended family gathered in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, one of Aunt Fay’s favorite places, to dedicate a park bench along the garden’s lovely Cherry Walk in her honor. Its plaque reads: “In Memory of Fay Leshner–May All Who Sit on This Bench Bask in the Warmth of Her Love.”
Here’s where our Urban Googler’s Tale begins. The baby Fay, my second cousin, has since grown up to be a 20-year-old fashion student, part-time model, and occasional babysitter for my kids. She never met her grandmother but has much the same sense of humor. And she has a distinct, some-would-say-kooky fashion sense that is all her own, though it also evokes the collaborations of Peggy Moffitt, Rudi Gernreich, and William Claxton. (I like to think of young Fay’s style as “Peggy Moppet.”) In her way, Cousin Fay has cut quite the swath, capturing the fancy of Scott Schuman, the fashion photo-blogger known as The Sartorialist, and appearing on billboards as an iPod silhouette.
Recently, Cousin Fay went on a work-study trip to London. We heard that she had been featured in the U.K. newspaper the Guardian, so I went online to look up the article. Since I couldn’t find Fay in the Guardian’s search engine, I turned instead to Google.
Typing the words “Fay Leshner” into Google, however, I stumbled across a raggedy-looking blog called Let’s Do This, evidently published by a bunch of young Brooklyn hipsters, that included a springtime post that bore a picture of the Fay Leshner Memorial Park Bench and the words “Cherry blossoms are poppin’ out all over the brooklyn botanical gardens. and no cherry poppin’ is complete without a visit to fay leshner and the sex bench...”
Is nothing sacred? I thought. Are scruffy Brooklyn hipsters in shrunken American Apparel t-shirts defiling the memory of my great aunt by trysting on her bench? And then blogging about it?
But then, I thought, Aunt Fay herself would have been amused by this post. She was an irreverent person, as this mugging montage demonstrates:
I decided to get in touch with the Let’s Do This people. The author of the “sex bench” post turned out to be a freelance illustrator named Nick Manske. Via his Web site, I sent him a note telling him a little about Aunt Fay and then cutting to the chase: “Is the Fay Leshner bench a widely known trysting spot?” I asked. “Has ‘Fay Leshner’ become some sort of nasty, lascivious shorthand slang?”
Manske, a sweet kid from Texas who is indeed a Brooklyn hipster–he lives with his brother, Nathan, in Williamsburg–was happy to explain himself. Let’s Do This, he said, is a blog in which a group of friends, mostly transplanted Texans living in New York, “keep each other up to date on culture, humor, entertainment, music/concerts, and just silly random things that we fancy and want to share. Most of the members of LDT are artists of some sort. There are writers, illustrators, directors, editors, designers, architects, musicians, and the like.”
Okay, but what about the Fay Leshner “sex bench”? “No one has actually had sex on the ‘sex bench,’” Manske said. (Phew!) He then unfurled this rather Judd Apatovian tale for me:
“In June ’04, one of my brothers was visiting from Texas (I have three brothers, two in Texas, and Nathan, who I live with). We went to the botanical gardens, and towards the end of the visit, we sat for a moment on a bench. We were just talking as brothers do, and we started talking about relationships, girls, boys, and sex in general. We were talking deeply and openly about things that we really had never talked about before, and in retrospect, it was really a bonding moment. At one point, as we were discussing some graphic sexual details or conquests, Nate asked, ‘I wonder if this is what... [turning around to look at plaque]... Fay Leshner’s family had in mind when they named this bench after her.’
“We all laughed, continued chatting, and discussing whatever it was that we were discussing. [The bench] forever will live on in infamy as the ‘sex bench’ among my friends and I. We go back to the botanical gardens every year when the weather starts to get warm, and no trip to the BG is complete without a visit to Miss Leshner’s ‘sex bench.’ Even if Nate and I aren’t with our friends, [the friends] are sure to snap a shot with their digital camera phone or whatever, and send it to us, usually accompanied with a ‘Fay says hi!’’’
So there you have it all in one heart-warming, if slightly filthy, tale of the circle of life, and of life in the ever-mutating city of New York. Below is a photograph that Nick Manske sent me of him (left) and his brother Nate on the Fay Leshner bench. Give them an S!
Barack Obama has taken something of a beating from the satirical community (a crucial voting bloc) for his camp’s ninnyish overreaction to last week’s New Yorker cover. But he’s actually more of a comedy aficionado than he lets on.
I’m still surprised that no one–apart from those lefties at Mother Jones–has picked up on this, but his infamous June speech about black dads and personal responsibility, the one that so rankled Jesse Jackson , owed a huge rhetorical debt to one of Chris Rock’s most incendiary and brilliant routines, “Niggas vs. Black People.”
I profiled Rock for Vanity Fair in 1998, back when his middling career had finally taken off, largely on the strength of that one routine. Rock told me then that he had actually retired the bit in 1996, delivering it for the last time on the night it was recorded for his Bring the Pain HBO special at the Takoma Theatre in Washington, D.C. But the routine took a while to filter out to the masses in the non-HBO-subscribing world, and it took on new life when it was included in his 1997 album Roll with the New.
The use of the word “nigga” caused much hand-wringing among black Americans, and the late Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes, who profiled Rock a few months before I did, all but asked the comic to apologize for his language. But younger African-Americans, like Rock’s friends Nelson George and Mario Joyner–and, evidently, Obama–seemed to get that Rock wasn’t using the word lightly, but, if I can quote from my article, as a tag for “African-Americans with a romanticized notion of black degeneracy, who think that the only genuine black experience is the gangsta, impoverished, poorly educated, federally dependent, on-the-pipe one.”
Anyway, I sensed a whiff of “Niggas vs. Black People” in Obama’s June speech when he asserted that “Any fool can have a child. That doesn’t make you a father.” But I recognized the speech’s Rockian DNA for sure when he said:
Don’t just sit in the house and watch Sports Center all weekend long... Don’t get carried away with that eighth-grade graduation. You’re supposed to graduate from eighth grade!
Here’s how Rock made the same point in “Niggas vs. Black People”:
You know what the worst thing about niggas is? Niggas always want some credit for some shit they supposed to do... A nigga will brag about some shit a normal man just... does. A nigga will say some shit like “I take care of my kids!” You’re supposed to, you dumb muthafucka!... What kind of ignorant shit is that? “I ain’t never been to jail.” What do you want, a cookie? You’re not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-havin’ muthafucka!
Needless to say, I can see why Obama chose to paraphrase rather than quote verbatim.
...and this is an all-too-realistic depiction of what a meeting with him is like.
You know we’ve reached some kind of tipping point with regard to both eco-awareness and high grocery prices when even a historically inept gardener like me starts growing his own food. Behold, above, a typical daily haul from my modest little trellis-ful of snap-pea plants. I grew them, from seeds (purchased here), on the tiny terrace that abuts my office in New York City. Within minutes of picking, the peas were flash-blanched Thomas Keller-style and served in a mint butter made with spearmint leaves (also grown on the terrace) and Ronnybrook butter purchased at the nearby farmer’s market.
A cheap, local, delicious, minimially footprintish component of our early-summer dinners. I’m not only inordinately proud of this modest achievement; I’m smug about it. Isn’t it time you became a Smugavore?
The success of WALL•E, with its Hello, Dolly! leitmotif, has given my Spy and Vanity Fair colleague Nell Scovell a pretext to tell a real Hollywood Babylon-type story she recently heard about one of the forgotten stars of that blowsy 1969 movie musical. Read Nell’s tale from the gutter here.