paul la rosa

The island of New York’s unclaimed dead….

by , on
Jan 21, 2017

Back in the 1980’s, when I was a young reporter at the New York Daily News, an excited fisherman called the city desk one day to report on a mysterious island he’d come across up near the Bronx. There was no one living on the island, the man said. All he could see were wooden coffins. It was unreal and, if I were interested, he’d take me over.

The next day was drab and dreary. Rain threatened but I met this guy in the Bronx and we shoved off in his little boat for this island I was sure he’d imagined. He mentioned something about the tide being high and we had better make sure to get back in time or we’d be stuck there for nightfall.

If what he was saying was true, this was the last place I’d want to be stuck for the night. I already had a sense of foreboding since the island seemed so cold and lifeless.

But we set off anyway to explore the interior and I quickly saw that everything he said was true. I felt I had stumbled into a real life horror movie. There were long open trenches half filled with wooden coffins. Hundreds of other coffins were piled high next to the trench awaiting their ultimate fate.

A silent bulldozer stood idle, as did dozens of shovels. Looming above us was a giant cross and all around were abandoned buildings, some with no roofs, others missing walls. We were all alone. What was this place?

I looked at the papers stapled to sides of nearly every coffins. There were descriptions of the bodies–many of them babies–and dates and hospital names. I later learned I had stumbled across New York’s Potter’s Field. It was called Hart Island and it’s where the unclaimed dead go to be buried.

Burials then and now are done by a crew of inmates from Rikers Island, weather permitting. It is considered a perk because the inmates get a boat ride and a trip off their own island.

There were restricted signs all over the island that I ignored as I went around doing my research. Believe me, I kept one eye on the tide so we were not get stranded there overnight.

With some checking back at the office, I discovered that two city agencies were fighting over the burials and they were backing up. Hundreds of coffins were left out in the open air and half filled trenches remained unopened.

Not a lot has changed on Hart Island in the past 30 years. Two public agencies are still fighting over the island and the wooden coffins are still placed in trenches by inmates from Rikers Island.

What I didn’t know then is that no one is allowed to visit the island although a lawsuit resulted in the city being forced to allow some family to visit irregularly. (For the curious, it seems some family members have been able to track down loved ones well after the fact and do want to spend a few moments with their remains.)

“It seems so 19th century,” Councilman Brad Lander, told the NY Times this week. “It’s ghoulish to think of Rikers inmates being trucked over to bury infants who have been abandoned.”

That’s a pretty good way of describing the island that some think would be better used as a park although that sounds like a different horror flick. If you want to know more, be sure to visit this site run by filmmaker Melissa Hunt who has been trying for along time to allow the public to have more open access to the island. The eerie images and music remind me of the day I set foot there.

No one was there when I visited all those years ago. If someone is posted there to stand guard now, well, all I know is that’s a job I would not want.

Yes, it’s winter and it snowed…

by , on
Jan 24, 2016

This is why true New Yorkers know never to park on the right side of a one-way street because all snow plows in this burg plow to the right!

If there’s one thing social media and technology has NOT improved, it’s our coverage of a snowstorm. Why oh why does every storm have to be the ‘storm of the century?’

You can pretty much take it to the bank that, if you live in the Northeast, it’s going to snow at some point during the winter. It’s not the end of the world, it’s not a reason to panic and, generally, it’s kind of a nice break from the rush-rush-rush nature of New York City. I tune in to TV weathermen and weather gals to hear how much snow is expected and that’s about it. Then I turn off my television and look out the window.

Snow in winter is not a big deal except, it seems, if it happens in New York, the media/hysterical capital of the world. If it snows here, it’s a SUPER-HUMUNGOUS big deal!!!

But not really. It snowed yesterday. Today it’s pretty nice outside. Life goes on. Despite media headlines, the city is not paralyzed and has not come to a standstill. If I wanted, I could drive my car all around the five boroughs. I could take a subway into Manhattan and visit museums, Broadway, whatever. Within a five block radius, I can purchase a meal of cuisines from around the world.

Don’t believe the hype. It’s winter…that’s it. Enjoy the photos. It’s nice outside, really!

My multi-million dollar evening….

by , on
Jan 29, 2017

I know you’ll be shocked to hear this but I don’t get invited to all that many open houses where the price tag for a condo is a gaudy $17.5 million. The word must be out that I’m a journalist.

But Thursday night was different. Suddenly, instead of sitting on my sofa eating popcorn and watching one of those shows like “Million Dollar Listing,” I was on the inside looking out.

Let me tell you, it’s not a bad place to be.

My wife–a leftist of expensive tastes–has always been a fan of pricey real estate shows so there was no way I could attend this “staging” party without her by my side. “Staging” is the art of dressing up an apartment (lived-in or, in this case, not occupied) with someone else’s well-appointed furniture, artworks etc. It seems one’s imagination only goes so far and the staging helps potential buyers imagine what the apartment could be.

The staging here was being presented by Meredith Baer, who operates one of the country’s premiere home staging companies. The building in question was One Vandam, otherwise known as 180 Avenue of the Americas in SoHo, and the apartment up for grabs was Penthouse C, which has five bedrooms, four bathrooms, two fireplaces and a partridge in a pear tree (not really but it does weigh in at an impressive 5,000 square feet.)

The party was co-hosted by Morgan Stanley Private Bank services so there was a full complement of friendly bankers attending. The idea was to get them to take a look and recommend the apartment to a client who might be on the lookout for such a deal.

The place was packed which you might expect given the open bar, free food and bourbon room. A mysterious ballerina, twirling around the guests, completed the picture. Everything was perfect until I went to take in the view from one of the apartments’ balconies.

There I was high up over Manhattan. There were about a dozen of us outside when I heard someone say, “I hope this holds. We put it in last week.”

What?!?!? I reached for the glass door to head back inside but….it was locked. I asked someone if he could open it. No luck. We were stuck outside on a balcony that I’m sure was secure know. The inside looked even more secure.

After some inspired pantomime (shivering, shouting ‘Help,’ peeing in pants), we convinced one of the guests to let us back in. The “entertainment” included a live staging of an empty room that was assembled before our very eyes, and a piece of performance art whereby two actors pretended they were getting dressed for a party in one of the bedrooms. I didn’t actually understand what was happening although the female actor was wearing very little but when she asked me to help pick out her dress, I caught on.

Either that or I’d had too much Black and Bow bourbon and imagined the whole thing.

I miss record stores….

by , on
Mar 4, 2016

Remember record stores?

As a baby boomer, record stores were a permanent part of my youth. I spent hours, days, weeks of my teenage years wandering through the aisles of stand-alone shops as well as the record departments at E. J. Korvettes and Alexander’s, browsing and reading liner notes before making my choice. I cannot tell you how many times I read the words to the songs on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” band. Record covers allowed us to absorb the music into our souls.

I have vivid memories of going to Alexander’s Lexington Avenue store to buy “Abbey Road” on the day it was released. Every person on line was buying the very same album.

Aside from selling records, the stores were also the places to go to get the hot ticket to the hot concert in town. Before the internet, if you wanted to buy tickets to a concert, you could go to the venue OR line up at your local record store and wait for one of those Ticketmaster machines to spit out a couple of “hard” tickets.

Those were the good old days–when scalpers actually had to bribe the ticket sellers to lay aside a few good seats. Now all they need is that devilish software that allows them to beat everyone to the punch the millisecond seats go on sale.

And it wasn’t only my youth but but my middle age too. It feels like just a few years ago, I was driving down the Sunset Strip when I stopped at a Tower Records to buy the first Coldplay CD. I know, I know but it feels like yesterday. I can remember going to London a few years back and stopping in their version of Tower Records during lunch hour. The place was packed and Dido’s latest was blasting from the speakers. It was so very English.

That was like….can it really be nearly 20 years ago? How can places so vibrant just…disappear?

What I wouldn’t do to have them back and that’s exactly what happened the other day as I walked down Fifth Avenue. I was just a little north of 42nd Street–not too far from where The Record Hunter once was–when in the window of Urban Outfitters was….a full-fledged record shop (except the store calls it a “Vinyl Shop.” Rows and rows of vinyl just sitting there waiting to be flipped through. I walked in and it was like going back in time.

Yes, they had the latest Taylor Swift and Adele records but they also had The Beatles and Led Zeppelin II. I happily browsed through the LPs, once again taking my to read the liner notes. And I have a new record player so I wasn’t just play acting. One of the great things about the times we live in now is that record companies are actually pressing vinyl again.

In the end, I couldn’t decide which record to buy but it doesn’t matter. I know I’ll be back; it’s great to know it exists.

On the inside of a song…

by , on
Mar 23, 2016

A couple of years ago, I bought a guitar. Aside from the very few lessons I took as a teenager, I never played but I’ve listened to music forever so I thought why not? I knew it would be tough (and it is) but I hoped I’d get some enjoyment out of trying to play a few simple tunes.

I think my decision had something to do with the 50th anniversary of The Beatles playing Ed Sullivan. Better late than never, right?

At first, I tried to learn via Youtube and online lessons but it wasn’t really happening so I screwed up my courage to take some group guitar lessons. I say ‘screwed up my courage’ because I was picturing that episode of “Seinfeld” where Kramer takes up karate and he’s in a class of 12-year-olds. Luckily, my fellow students were above drinking age. A couple were even in their 30s.

The group classes are fun and don’t have the pressure of private lessons. I’m not going out on the road; I just want to perform a few songs in my room and someday in front of a campfire. These days, I’m able to play a handful of songs and I get great enjoyment out of singing along in the privacy of my home-office where even my wife can’t necessarily hear me.

But here’s something I did not anticipate when I started taking lessons….the magic of getting inside a song, of understanding how the original artists picked the perfect chords to make the emotion of the song come to life. Sometimes it’s just that perfect chord, sometimes it’s the words, sometimes it’s both.

I’m thinking today of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” a song I’ve probably heard 1,000 times or more. Of course, it’s a classic but I never thought much about it until I started playing it. I know it’s based upon another song but, as usual, Dylan brought his own style to it. As a writer, I can only imagine how pleased he was when he wrote the line, “I once loved a woman, a child I’m told/I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul,” or “I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind/you could have done better but I don’t mind/you just kinda wasted my precious time…”

There’s a chord in the song–C7–that is just so perfect for the phrase that it’s magic or genius or what makes Dylan Dylan. But I never would have understood that unless I took up the guitar. It’s an unintended benefit, a lightbulb that never would have been lit otherwise.

Donald Trump would be my 4th….

by , on
Apr 5, 2016

Just to be clear, I’m not voting for Donald Trump BUT, if he were to become president, he would be the 4th president I’ve met one on one.

I’m not rooting for him but I like to keep track of my close encounters of a presidential kind. Here they are in order:

Richard Nixon — The year was 1980. Ronald Reagan had just won the presidency and, the day after Election Day, one of my editors at the Daily News sent me up to former President Richard Nixon’s townhouse on the upper east side to get his thoughts. It was a different time. Today, there would probably be a lot of press there but, back then, it was me, one other reporter and a few secret service agents. It was early in the morning and Nixon came outside on his way somewhere and stopped to shake hands and chat with me and the other reporter. We got his thoughts about the election and off he went.
Jimmy Carter — Again, it was the 1980s. I can’t remember the year but I was covering the lower east side and housing and I wound up going to an tenement just off Tompkins Square Park that former President Jimmy Carter was helping rebuild via his Habitat for Humanity program. I climbed a half-finished staircase where I found former President Carter in work clothes and protective glasses hammering some nails. We chatted for a few moments about Habitat and off I went.
Bill Clinton — This one was a total fluke. It was 1992 and I was coming out of a subway station at 47th/50th Street on Sixth Avenue. As I ascended to the street, candidate Bill Clinton was coming down Sixth Avenue accompanied by Ruth Messinger and a gaggle of reporters. I exited at the perfect time to intersect with him and, as a candidate, he was happy to see me. We shook hands. I said hello to Ruth who I knew from the time I covered City Hall for the Daily News and off he went.
Donald Trump — You couldn’t cover housing in the 1980s without running into Donald Trump and indeed I did. I was working on a magazine story about former city Housing Commissioner Anthony Gliedman who had gone to work for Trump. I interviewed him in the Trump Tower as I recall and then he showed me into the office of the future presidential candidate. I admired Trump’s view of Central Park and we talked about Gliedman and housing and away I went.
So The Donald, as we used to call him, would be the 4th President I’ve met one on one and shook hands with. Do I hope for that reason he makes it? Let’s just say, I think my record is going to stand at 3….unless of course I happen to meet Hilary between now and then.

If you’re looking for a horror movie this summer, might I suggest “Weiner?”

by , on
Jun 3, 2016

This new documentary about the former Congressman from New York is downright frightening in its intensity for Anthony Weiner and his-wife-who-deserves-so-much-better Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s right hand woman. She’s so close to the Clintons that Bill once referred to her as his second daughter.

The film documents Weiner’s run to become mayor of New York City following his sexting/Twitter scandal with a bevy of like-minded and willing young women. Of course, we all know what happened once selfies of Weiner’s bulging-through-his-underpants weiner surfaced on the internet.

But Huma gave Weiner a second chance and New Yorkers were about to as well (he was leading in the mayoral polls) when it was revealed that Weiner was still up to his old tricks, exchanging provocative emails and phone calls with a 23-year-old woman named Sydney Leathers. As if Weiner’s name wasn’t bad enough–he had to chose a paramour who could compete.

What’s worse is when Ms. Leathers (who cashes in on her notoriety by, what else, making a porn flick) comes to New York ready to confront Weiner and Huma. In one of the only times Weiner shows an ounce of good judgment, he tells Huma to get out of his car and go home on Election Night as Ms. Leathers waits for the both of them with cameras rolling.

Watching Weiner and his wife suffer through the onslaught of the New York media after Ms. Leathers goes public is painful and makes you wonder why anyone would want to run for mayor. But what’s worse is when Weiner decides to go toe-to-toe with an Orthodox Jew who tells him he ought to hide his face in shame. Let’s just say Weiner picked the wrong guy to confront because this fellow gives as good as he gets.

Sitting through this movie is only fun if you like watching someone’s head get squeezed tighter and tighter in a vise. It’s not that there’s any sympathy here for Weiner but it’s still quite uncomfortable to watch.

Two questions come immediately to mind. Well actually three.

What was Weiner thinking when he allowed the cameras to follow him everywhere, even in his private moments with Huma?
Why did he allow this movie to be made and continue to cooperate with it after his new sexting scandal was revealed?
What the fuck is wrong with Huma?
It’s obvious that Weiner has no judgment but what about Huma? You have to wonder about the advice she gives Hillary if she’s standing by (and she’s still married to him) her man as Hillary herself once famously did. Still, Bill wasn’t dumb enough to get caught twice with his hand in the cookie jar (you can certainly choose your own, much more graphic analogy) and he wasn’t so silly as to allow cameras to follow him around in the private moments between he and Hillary.

Aside from the sad display of seeing a man fall apart (and Weiner seems to physically become more and more of a cartoon-looking figure as the film unfolds), this documentary is fascinating because it gives the public its first detailed look at Huma Abedin who had been something of a mythical creature…mentioned but never actually seen.

Huma is glamorous for sure but she’s also the master of the eye roll in this flick. She almost never bashes Weiner directly in front of the camera (even though he takes a few shots at her) but her eyes tell the tale and, to directly quote what one interviewer, they seem to be asking her husband, “What is wrong with you?”

I feel very safe in saying that Anthony Weiner is one public figure who is not going to make a comeback. And it’s not because the public won’t forgive him again (they might) but because his name is catnip squared to the city’s headline writers. The Daily News and the New York Post vied gleefully for the best front pages, things like “Weiner Sticks It Out” and “Obama to Weiner: Beat It.”

Let’s put it this way–he can come back but his name is kaput.

We are all “soft targets” so what are we to do?

by , on
Jun 12, 2016

As security experts have gotten smarter and better at protecting government, corporate and military facilities from being attacked, Islamic radicals and others have turned their attention on the rest of us–the so-called “soft targets” like the patrons of the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, site of the latest unspeakable tragedy. No use mentioning the shooter’s name. You know who he is but, as of this writing, I don’t know a single name of any victim. That’s life in the 21st century. As horrible as this mass murder was, we’ve sadly seen it all before.

It’s only the latest example–terrorists, foreign and domestic, have attacked coffee shops and theaters in Paris, day care clinics in Colorado, and an airport terminal in Belgium. It’s easy to spot and pick out “soft targets” because they are everywhere crowds of people congregate.

So what are we to do? The easy answer is don’t go out, avoid anywhere crowds of people congregate, from concerts to nightclubs to subways. But that’s unreasonable, right? It is getting harder and harder and the lines are getting longer and longer at concerts, sporting events but it’s the price we pay for safety. Probably the longest line I’ve ever stood in for a concert was for Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam who wrote the song “Peacetrain.” How’s that for irony? But because he’s a Muslim, he’d gotten threats. I’ve never had a more expansive pat down than at the Cat’s Philadelphia concert in 2014.

It seems to me that no amount of security will stop a determined radical with an automatic weapon. I don’t know what the security was in Orlando but, even if it is was the best in the world, you cannot stop a crazy man with an AK-47.

I guess that leaves it to the rest of us and, for an example, we can look to the brother of singer Christina Grimmie, coincidentally gunned down and murdered Friday night in Orlando. Christina’s brother charged the gunman and is being hailed as a hero for preventing further carnage. He’s an example to the rest of us. Our lives are now in our hands and, if you happen to be unfortunate enough to be present when someone attacks, the best course of action may be to charge the gunman. I’m no security expert but, unless you’re standing next to the exit door, what other choice do we have?


The FBI missed Omar Mateen but, then again, this is the agency that investigated Lee Harvey Oswald….

by , on
Jun 13, 2016

People across the country have expressed shock and/or outrage that Omar Mateen was able to murder 49 patrons of a gay nightclub even though the FBI conducted a 10-month investigation of him in 2013 after he reportedly told co-workers he was connected to terrorists. To quote the New York Times story:

“First he claimed family connections to Al Qaeda,” which, like the Islamic State, is a Sunni Muslim terrorist group, James Comey, the F.B.I. director, said Monday. “He also said he was a member of Hezbollah,” a Shiite group in conflict with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

“He said he hoped that law enforcement would raid his apartment and assault his wife and child so that he could martyr himself,” Mr. Comey said.

“Our investigation involved introducing confidential sources to him, recording conversations with him, following him, reviewing transactional records from his communications,” and searching government records for mentions of him, the director said. “We then interviewed him twice. He admitted making the statements his co-workers reported, but explained that he did it in anger because he thought his co-workers were discriminating against him and teasing him because he was Muslim.”

If you’re tempted to say “Wow, how can the FBI be so inept?” a history lesson is in order. Consider that this is the same agency (along with the CIA) that allowed Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate President John F. Kennedy after interviewing Oswald and keeping tabs on him for years.

First off, the FBI did not have nearly as many home-grown terrorists to keep track of back in the early 1960’s when most Americans sought stability after the horrors of WW II. Secondly, how could the agency not be aware of Oswald? The guy practically walked around with a neon sign around his neck that said, “Kick me, I’m a Communist.”

In the Cold War era, Oswald traveled to the Soviet Union, tried to defect and, when refused, married a Soviet citizen. Oswald also traveled to Mexico and visited the Soviet and Cuban Embassies. When he was refused a Visa, Oswald reportedly stormed out saying, “I’m going to kill Kennedy for this.” Know who wrote the memo relating this story? Um, J. Edgar Hoover, the uber boss of the FBI. All this information, by the way, comes from the book “A Cruel and Shocking History: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination” by former New York Times reporter Philip Shenon. The book came out in 2013 and largely relates all that the FBI and CIA hid from the Warren Commission, the body that looked into the Kennedy Assassination.

The book also recounts the story of how Oswald reacted to the FBI trying to interview his wife Marina. Oswald reportedly wrote a note to the FBI agent involved telling him he would blow up the FBI headquarters in Dallas. The agent later told reputable sources that he was ordered to destroy that note after JFK’s assassination.

It’s no comfort to know that the FBI has been screwing up as long as it’s been interviewing potential terrorists but it is instructive.

How the song “Different Drum” became a hit….

by , on
Jun 15, 2016

I was in a local Key Food supermarket the other day when the ’60s classic “Different Drum” featuring Linda Ronstadt came blasting through the store’s sound system. I stopped right there in the produce aisle and just listened with wonder, yes, and admiration. The song has always been a favorite of mine and I had completely forgotten about it.

The moment I got home, I went to add it to my Spotify list but it was nowhere to be found. Of course! Because it was not a Linda Ronstadt song–it was released when she was the lead singer of the Stone Poneys.

As I listened again and again, I gained more and more respect for whomever wrote this gem. It’s a minor masterpiece, not just the melody but the lyrics and pretty much everything about it. Like Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows,” “Different Drum” is a perfect song.

I began to wonder who wrote it and if he or she had written anything else. I knew it probably was not Ronstadt who was more an interpreter of songs. As an aside, it’s always bothered me that, while we go overboard in our critiques of novels and films, we rarely give the same treatment to pop songs (outside of the Beatles), songs that hit us on a visceral level and still do.

Thanks to the internet, I didn’t have to look too far to learn that “Different Drum” was written by Mike Nesmith of The Monkees. In fact, he offered it to the producers of the TV show who sniffed that it was not a Monkees’ song.

Instead, he gave it to a group called the Greenbriar Boys whose slowed-down, folk-style recording doesn’t have any of the magic that Ronstadt brought to the song. Actually, it was producer Nik Venet–credited with discovering the Beach Boys–who heard the song and thought it should be arranged differently and made more commercial.

When Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys arrived to record the song, Venet had a surprise in store. Not only the new arrangement but he told the rest of the Poneys, very much a folk group, that they would not be playing on the record. Venet had studio musicians standing by and ready. Ronstadt had only minutes to figure out the way she would sing it.

Let’s just say, she nailed it. Incredibly, the song only made it to No. 13 on the Billboard charts but it made Ronstadt a star. The Stone Poneys wound up not appearing on the group’s biggest hit and Mike Nesmith stuck with the Monkees although he wrong many other songs, many quite good.

Even he has acknowledged that Ronstadt gave the song something special because she was singing from the female perspective. The rest is rock history.


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