- Historic Sites
April 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 2
A young man identified only as Roshinsky, for example, lies faceup next to his bed. Pennants on his wall may chronicle some of the places he managed to see in his truncated life: Catalina Island; Tyler Hill, Pennsylvania; Niagara Falls. A pair of telegrapher’s headphones lies next to him. Was he wearing them, too intent upon his dots and dashes to hear anything else, when death arrived?
Two well-dressed, nameless men—one white, one black—lie together at the bottom of an elevator shaft. What were they doing together in that segregated time? Were they the victims of some ghastly accident, or did someone dump them there?
Did the Italian families, wearing nightclothes and peering down from their windows above an olive oil and macaroni shop in Brooklyn or Manhattan, know the well-dressed shooting victim sprawled on the sidewalk next to his straw hat? And if they did, did they dare tell the police who he was or who might have wanted him out of the way?
Each image in Evidence both compels and disquiets. “They are tombs like the pyramids,” Sante writes of the photographs he found, “outfitting the corpse with the effects of its life. Each, as well, might be the last photograph, the full stop toward which all photography inexorably draws, the pinned specimen of an extinguished race, the monument to the Unknown Human. As we look at them the clocks have all stopped, the air is going out of the world, the great glass bell is descending on the circumference. There is no place for us outside the frame, nothing to breathe, nowhere to stand. We cannot be the viewer of such a scene. We must have forgotten: We are the subject.”
The late A. J. Liebling was also fascinated by New York’s underside, but as an unabashed Manhattan chauvinist—he once claimed never to have traveled farther west than Buffalo and, having seen it, saw no need ever to venture so far again —he passed up the city’s very lowest depths in favor of chronicling the merely raffish for The New Yorker .
The photographs that Sante found, made between 1914 and 1918, provide an unforgettable glimpse of New York at its worst.
Anyone who missed Liebling the first time around can get acquainted with him now, thanks to North Point Press, which has recently reprinted several of his collections in paperback— The Telephone Booth Indian , Between Meals , The Honest Rainmaker , Back Where I Came From —as well as a collection of previously unpublished boxing pieces, A Neutral Corner .
Every one of them is worth reading, both as brilliant journalism and as an informal portrait of New York during the Depression, a “materially miserable” time, Liebling wrote, when “few had time to feel guilty and certainly nobody had reason to feel smug.”
What Liebling liked most about New York was just what alarms some visitors: its mostly cheerful anarchy. “I like to think,” he wrote, “of all the city microcosms so nicely synchronized though unaware of one another: the worlds of the weightlifters, yodelers, tugboat captains and sideshow barkers, of the book dutchers, sparring partners, song pluggers, sporting girls and religious painters, of the dealers in rhesus monkeys and the bishops of churches that they establish themselves under the religious corporations law.”
Liebling made himself welcome in all those worlds and more, and he listened almost as well as he wrote. Who else would have noted the complaint of a stripper when she learned that a new law required that her costumes henceforth be opaque: “What is the use of opaque clothing? You can see right through it.” Or taken down word for word Sam Langford’s explanation of how he had knocked out an opponent: “I put my haid oat and when he hit at it, I took it away. Then I put my haid oat again. And then he hit at me, I took it away. Then I put my haid out again. But when he hit at it, I stayed right there. Naturally, he hit right past me. I belted him oat.”
He specialized in writing about Times Square, then merely seedy, not dangerous, and did it without any of Damon Runyon’s false sentimentality or Walter Winchell’s nastiness, especially delighting in the subtle shades of honor he found there among thieves: “There is a fellow known as Paddy the Booster, who sells neckties he steals from haberdashers, and another known as Mac the Phony Booster, who sells neckties which he pretends to have stolen but are really shoddy ties he has bought very cheaply. Naturally, Paddy looks down on Mac, whom he considers a racketeer.”
Liebling once asked the boxing trainer Whitey Bimstein, just back from a brief out-of-town vacation, how he’d liked the country.
“It’s a nice spot,” Bimstein answered.
That’s about how I feel, too, after a dozen years in New York and despite the sirens and crime statistics and the knowledge that there are still New Yorkers for whom nothing at all has changed since Luc Sante’s troubling photographs were taken.