December 2011

Posted by Ellen

One of about a dozen murals painted in 1938 by Joseph Hirsch to decorate the basement walls of a long-since-abandoned building on South Street in Philadelphia, this one is titled "A Mechanical Engineering Problem." I can't say I know for certain what the joke is here, though the fact that the art had been commissioned by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), who owned the building and used it for an office and social center, would have to be a major clue. My guess is that the mustachioed tailors portrayed here were not union workers and were not particularly skilled suitmakers, either; perhaps the point is that only a chump would order a custom-tailored suit from guys like these instead of buying a ready-made, union-made coat and trousers.

Here is another take on the same theme:

In this image, the chump is getting an ill-fitting suit not because it's off-the-shelf and union-made but because the slimeball salesmen can't or won't be bothered to fit him properly. The superiority of union needlework–which the establishment advertises prominently–is or ought to be a selling point among highfalutin haberdashers.

Whatever the punch line, the ACWA was happy with the murals and rehired Hirsch a couple of years later to do a much larger and more formal work for the wall of their auditorium upstairs: a mural 11 feet high and 65 feet long–the largest the entire city at the time–which traced the early history of labor unions in the United States. It was later removed from the building and installed in the lobby of the Sidney Hillman Apartments a few blocks away.

Sidney Hillman, who founded the ACWA, had no personal association with Philadelphia; he was born in Lithuania, and after being imprisoned for labor agitation in Poland in the early years of the twentieth century, he settled in Chicago, where he organized several powerful unions and steered the American labor movement toward the Democratic Party in general and Franklin Roosevelt in particular. But his ACWA represented about 25,000 Philadelphians in the 1930s, when locals from around the city got together to buy the building at 2101 South Street, which became known as the Amalgamated Center. There were offices upstairs, an auditorium and meeting rooms on the main floor, and a swimming pool, gym, and social hall in the basement.

The building was already set up for pretty much these same functions and had been since before 1900, when wealthy merchant John Wanamaker financed its construction for the Bethany Brotherhood, a men's fellowship and social lodge from nearby Bethany Presbyterian Church. During World War I, the Brotherhood turned over the building for housing and recrational use by soldiers and sailors on leave; more than 8,000 servicemen swam, played, and partied there in 1917 and 1918, with Wanamaker picking up the tab for operating costs.

The Amalgamated unions bought it in 1934 and remodeled and expanded it, eventually cladding many walls in marble; the ACWA and a series of affiliated and successor unions occupied the building until 1984, when declining membership led to its sale as office space for Graduate Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

In recent years, it has sat empty. But this week, the basement and much of the first floor of the old Amalgamated Center reopened to something like its original function: once again, the place is a gym, this time operated by a private company, City Fitness. Old Sidney Hillman would not have approved of how the renovation work was undertaken; a couple of weeks before the reopening, there were pickets in front of the building, in response to a subcontractor's use of non-union labor.

Hirsch's murals in the basement will also meet an inglorious fate (as if the graffiti wasn't enough). They are theoretically protected by the building's inclusion on the National Registry of Historic Places, but what that means in practice is that City Fitness will soon be hiding most of them, covering them over with mirrors for the exercise rooms.

Meanwhile, for a brief moment in a new century, Sidney Hillman, "The Guide and Spirit of Amalgamated C.W.," is once again flying free, even if he does have a heart inked on his bicep with the name Carmine inside:

Posted by Ellen

We have received another posting from The Ensign™, who is still bobbing around out in the Pacific Ocean aboard the USS Ingraham. This time, he confesses to taking up a habit that mama sez will ruin the headliner and upholstery and even the plastic of the dashboard in his car. . . .

So I thought it would be cool to buy a box of really nice Cohiba cigars when I was in Panama. All the engineering officers were doing it, and they told me that they could get a better deal if more people got in on the purchase. So I decided to get a box for myself. The problem with this is that I don't really like cigars, and now I have a $120 box of eight-inch-long, super thick cigars. I have tried to be a man and smoke them, but I feel like I'm being punished for something. I have already given a couple of them away. And I traded the Chief Engineer two of them for his old LTJG shoulder boards. (I know it is a bit presumptuous of me to assume that I'll get promoted, but I like my odds.)

Even though I do not enjoy the actual smoking of said cigar, I do take pleasure in the act of smoking on a ship. Today I got off the reveille watch from two to seven in the morning, and although tired I began my day. I went to quarters, did an electrical safety walk-through of Radio division, ordered some parts for a broken coffee maker (this thing is HUGE and apparently has a lot of electrical components), emailed our shore engineer to coordinate some post-deployment electrical work, validated a bunch of jobs that my guys have written up that came back to me for grammatical errors (Yay! My English degree is slowly paying dividends...), ensured that some of my guys helped to secure the electrical power to a food storage freezer that needs to have work done, went to departmental training on the mess decks, and located a ground in the B phase. It was a standard day.

Anyways, after dinner, and a short nap, I went out to the weather decks (the designated smoke area) and lit up a cigar. Watching the sun dip below the horizon, and talking to smokers as they came and went, I couldn't help but laugh. Even though I felt like I was smoking a flaming cucumber, it was pretty cool to be out there. As the breeze whipped back my hair and rippled through my grease stained coveralls, as I tried not to embarrass myself by coughing amongst veteran smokers, and as I contemplated how small we humans are as the stars started to poke needle holes through the clouds, I couldn't help but laugh. This deployment, this job, it's kind of funny sometimes for no particular reason.

Well, I'm off to stand the evening watch and to try and come up with more excuses to give away my expensive cohiba cigars.

Posted by Ellen

Clear winners of the 2011 Christmas Vacation jigsaw competition are Olivia Horowitz of Bloomington, Indiana, and her grandmother Sandra Horowitz. They correctly assembled a 1,000-piece puzzle in less than 24 hours and would have finished even faster, according to spectators, had it not been for a break to watch a movie.

December 29 is Grandma Sandy's eighty-first birthday. Olivia, a junior at Bloomington South High School, is sixteen.

Posted by Ellen

The twins rolling around on the mat at lower left are imitating their father's winning wrestling moves at right, during Deering High School's annual alumni wrestling meet last week.

For many alumni of Deering's storied wrestling program, this meet is their only chance to lace up their old wrestling shoes and see if they've still got what it takes. Coach Kirk, who's been running the show at Deering for more than thirty years, matches up each alumnus against a member of the current varsity squad; the wrestling is vigorous but not particularly intense, because Coach always rigs the matchups to favor the old guys. This year, as in most years, the alumni won every bout.

Posted by Ellen

In this living-room scene, the tree may look all modern and artificial, but it was a completely natural blue spruce, spray-painted white with an air compressor. Mother and daughter are dressed for Christmas in 1954 in Miami Shores, Florida.

Posted by Ellen

As Debby and her daughter Lily lit the candles for the first night of Hanukah, Lily's Hanukah bear sat on the kitchen counter just beyond the right edge of this picture. Use your imagination: the Hanukah bear is a stuffed polar bear wearing a yarmulke, with a battery-powered voice. Push the button, and the Hanukah bear sings and sings about a dreidel made of clay.

After the candles were lit and the bear had sung, there were dreidels made of plastic and gelt made of chocolate, plus presents for Lily and latkes for all.

Posted by Ellen

This species of duck is native to Africa and is ubiquitous throughout the continent, except in deserts and deep forest. It is not native but nonetheless ubiquitous in many parts of Europe, especially England, where it was introduced more than three centuries ago and has thrived in town and countryside to such an extent that it was added last year to the official national list of animal pests. This picture was taken recently in London.

The birds are known as Egyptian Geese, despite the fact that they are ducks, not geese. Apparently, they have a heavy-looking habit of flight that makes them look goose-like in the air.

Living the Dream

20 Dec 2011
Posted by Ellen

This general store in Fort Covington, New York, a border town about 75 miles southwest of Montreal, was the pride and joy of Elsie and Charles J. Clarke, who are pictured here behind the counter in the mid-1920s.  Charles Clarke, who had emigrated to Canada as a boy aboard one of the orphan ships from Liverpool, England, had somehow managed to save up enough money to buy his very own store. A few years later, however, during the devastation of the Great Depression, the Clarkes extended so much credit to their customers and had to conduct so much of their trade by barter that they lost the store.

Posted by Ellen

When this picture was taken, the Wiggin family had included Vera the dog for about two hours.

Posted by Ellen

Visitors enjoy their reflections in the bean, in downtown Chicago's Millennium Park, near the waterfront. The couple pictured here can also be seen at lower right in the picture below, when they were first approaching the shiny thing and had not yet found themselves in it. But they're already there, if you look closely, along with the skyscrapers in the background and an ice skating rink in the middle distance.