Saturday, May 26, 2018

Photo of the Day: St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church, Jersey City, NJ

Two weekends ago, I attended a memorial mass for my father at St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church, in Jersey City, NJ. You can see from this photo I took here of its exterior that it’s a handsome old church. 

But what I think might have appealed to my dad—who loved to unroll stories in his rich brogue up to the day he died this winter, at age 101—would have been the many tales that could have been told over the years about the priests inside this church in the old Irish-American “Horseshoe” section (nicknamed after its shape following Republican gerrymandering), as well as the active and faithful parish they led.

The parish was founded in 1867, and the church’s interior contains a number of decorative touches that would have made the predominantly Irish immigrants who filled its pews well into the 20th century feel at home. With a swelling congregation came the additional infrastructure so familiar to Catholics nationwide for generations: a rectory, convent and school.

As late as 1959, one year before the first Catholic would be elected President, St. Michael’s still had 1,000 communicants and members. But amid a perfect storm of traditional parishioners flocking to the suburbs or dying, the population falloff after the Baby Boom, and the larger trend toward secularization in American culture, the parish underwent a period of adjustment so characteristic of other Catholic urban parishes in the last several decades, as the number of congregants fell and the convent and school were closed.

If demography is destiny, then the revival of Jersey City as a whole bodes well for St. Michael’s. Combined with several other downtown Jersey City churches into Resurrection Parish in the late 1990s, St. Michael’s was designated an independent unit once again by the Archdiocese of Newark four years ago. 

Through the peak of its influence as a “powerhouse” parish and beyond, St. Michael’s was steered by a succession of strong-willed, often remarkable pastors who heavily influenced the spiritual, social, and even political life of the city, including: 

*Monsignor John Sheppard, who encouraged a young Frank Hague and advised (and even endorsed) the future political boss of Jersey City for the rest of his life; 

*Monsignor Leroy McWilliams, who taught three future leaders of the Church in New Jersey: Archbishop Thomas Boland of Newark, Bishop James McNulty of Paterson, and Seton Hall President Msgr. John McNulty; and 

*Fr. Hugh Fitzgerald, the kindly longtime parish who advocated for the homeless, Hispanic and Vietnamese immigrants.

The St. Michael’s of the 21st century has not been without challenges (notably, severe water damage in 2014). But physical improvements since the turn of the millennium has given visitors more of a sense of what it was like in its heyday. 

Leading the transition into this new age is Fr. Tom Quinn, whom—full disclosure!—I have known since our childhood and youth at St. Cecilia’s in Englewood, NJ. His work experiences before his 2005 ordination—journalism, acting, nursing—amply prepared him, in ways I doubt he could have anticipated at the time, for a calling requiring constant communication and pastoral care.

Across the street from St. Michael’s, in Hamilton Park and beyond, is a more diverse, transient and secular world than the one it has known before. Yet inside, the venerable church continues to awe and inspire. As it moves from retrenchment to rejuvenation, it is fortunate to have in Fr. Tom a pastor blessed with energy, good humor, a sense of resolve, and a glowing faith.

Quote of the Day (Claude McKay, on Where Spring Winds ‘Go Laughing By’)

“Too green the springing April grass,
Too blue the silver-speckled sky,
For me to linger here, alas,
While happy winds go laughing by,
Wasting the golden hours indoors,
Washing windows and scrubbing floors.”— Poet-novelist Claude McKay (1889-1948), “Spring in New Hampshire” (1920)

Claude McKay, a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance that brought a cultural flowering to the neighborhood in the 1920s, died 70 years ago this past Tuesday. I thought of writing about him when I came across the 150th anniversary special issue of The Nation—one of those mega-issues that I can’t resist picking up on the newsstand but which take me forever to get around to reading.

The McKay poem I stumbled across in that issue was “Home Song,” the only one of his that ever appeared in the venerable progressive publication. I liked it well enough, but, in researching his work online, I found that I enjoyed this particular one even more.

As I indicated in a prior post about McKay, this Jamaican immigrant was deeply critical of racial and class inequities in America in the first half of this century. That criticism is introduced, gradually but unmistakably, by the last couple of lines in today’s quote. Due to the need to perform menial labor, “Washing windows and scrubbing floors,” the narrator can’t enjoy a spell of weather that seems especially dazzling (even the winds, which are normally harsh and fierce in other poems, are described here in almost human terms—“happy…laughing.”

In her cultural history of Manhattan in the 1920s, Terrible Honesty, Columbia University professor Ann Douglas remarks that, while much of McKay’s prose uses African-American dialect, his poems after his first collection are “impeccably Anglo-European in their regular meter and standard English diction.” “Spring in New Hampshire” is a good example. It’s easy to imagine it coming from the pen of a Romantic poet—Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, maybe even John Clare.

Over the course of his nearly three remaining decades, McKay probably spent more hours than he wished in urban environments, “wasting the golden hours.” Anger over the plight of African-Americans led him to embrace Communism, until the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939 resulted in his break with the Party.

Through the 1940s, McKay’s literary output, reputation and health withered. By the time he died in Chicago, he was largely forgotten. More recently, as interest in the Harlem Renaissance has revived, so has fascination with this poet of passionate protest and intense lyrical feeling.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Photo of the Day: ‘Bloomberg Beach,’ NYC, Memorial Day Weekend, 2018

A number of years ago, New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica wrote that former Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s recommendation that most of Times Square should become a pedestrian mall—with chairs to accommodate them—would create such an upsurge of sunbathers that this “crossroads of the world” should be christened “Bloomberg Beach.”

That sarcastic nickname hasn’t gone into the wide circulation it deserves yet, but the crowds have in fact come out for a long time now—a fact that I discovered yet again today. With ships docked for the weekend, seamen were taking shore leave, joining hordes of tourists and city residents who wanted to enjoy the warm weather before it turns muggy tomorrow. 

I was eager to get home to New Jersey once my midtown office close, but I just had to take this picture of this moment, suspended between a rainy spring and what promises to be a sticky summer, when so many tried to catch their breath while they still could.

Quote of the Day (Jenny Lee, With Mock Advice for Today’s Grads)

“Class of 2018.  Don’t be afraid to fail. Be terrified. Some of you haven't got what it takes. Today, you are in cap and gown—tomorrow you will go cap-in-hand. Failure is only charming in retrospect; temping as a cardboard-box folder on the UPS production line is only romantic once it is your TED-talk anecdote. Visualise yourself in five years, dressed as Santa's elf, serving champagne to your college valedictorian at its law firm's Christmas. Take it from someone who once worked at a shopping mall in Brockley dressed as an air hostess.”— Jenny Lee, “Let Me Do the Honours,” The Financial Times, May 19-20, 2018

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Flashback, May 1943: Anti-Lynching Film ‘Ox-Bow Incident’ Jars American Conscience

In the middle of a war fought against foreign dictatorships, the western The Ox-Bow Incident—released in U.S. theaters 75 years ago this week—delivered a somber warning: Under the auspices of democracy, even a group of rambunctious individualists can be manipulated by a bullying poseur into overriding the rule of law. 

I remember watching The Ox-Bow Incident in sociology class in high school. It was like dunking in ice-cold water a group of adolescents whose principal preoccupations were the correct party to attend that weekend, Sunday afternoon football, and catching the eye of the opposite sex every day of the week. The movie was obvious—especially in a letter read by Henry Fonda that should have had “MESSAGE” written all over it—but it was just the type of thing that kids needed then.

Come to think of it, that lack of subtlety might be the only way to get through to some adults today who need to heed the movie’s caution that “law is the very conscience of humanity.”

The “incident” at the heart of the movie—the lynching of three innocent men on the Nevada frontier in 1885—had particular meaning for star Henry Fonda (left, in the attached image, with Dana Andrews, center), whose witnessing of a similar event on the streets of Omaha at age 14 in 1919 inspired his subsequent lifelong liberalism. (That episode is described in Scott Eyman's recent dual bio of lifelong friends Fonda and James Stewart, Hank and Jim.)

Now, with race riots bursting out in some of America’s biggest cities and Japanese-Americans compelled into internment camps, Fonda, screenwriter-producer Lamar Trotti, and director William Wellman wanted to signal, in unmistakable terms, the dangers in disregarding laws and the rights of minorities.

Lynching, though reduced in number, was hardly absent from either Americans’ memory or even short-term experience nearly a year and a half after Pearl Harbor. The three recorded in 1943, as well as the 16 that occurred in the 1941-45 war years, were, to be sure, a good deal lower than the 20 of 1935, let alone the postwar high of 83 in 1919. 

But the attempt to pass federal anti-lynching legislation had proven as futile as it was unrelenting. The last serious attempt to do so, in 1938, had foundered when President Franklin Roosevelt decided he could not support the bill lest it fracture a New Deal coalition that included a segregationist Southern contingent on Capitol Hill. 

Highlighting this situation in a western, seemingly far removed from contemporary reality, seemed tailor-made for a cinematic treatment more palatable to audiences. (Especially the year 1885, the last time that the number of white lynching victims outnumbered black ones.) But just about every studio in town rejected “Wild Bill” Wellman’s pitch. 

As a last resort, the director took the treatment to Darryl Zanuck. Wellman’s last encounter with the Twentieth-Century Fox head had ended in disaster: a fistfight on a camping trip. After getting over his surprise over hearing from Wellman again, Zanuck called him back as promised within 48 hours and agreed with him that it was a great project. 

Even so, Zanuck was dubious about the commercial prospects of such grim subject matter. He only ended up giving the green light to the project for three reasons:

*Wellman’s prior record of commercial success;

*The director’s agreement to keep a tight lid on costs, which would improve its slim chances of earning even a slight profit; and

*A commitment on the part of Wellman to direct, sight unseen, two other scripts of Zanuck’s choosing, in return for approving Wellman’s dream project.

Within these restrictions, Wellman created an admirably lean, taut western with a low budget that worked to its advantage. 

At only 75 minutes long, the movie tells its story swiftly, like a novella. The need to compress characters forced Wellman and Trotti to combine characters and make them more complex—which worked especially well for the African-American preacher Sparks (significantly, the first character among the posse to vote against the lynching) and the mob’s Mexican victim (played by a scene-stealing Anthony Quinn). 

Moreover, instead of the wide vistas that were a staple of the genre, Wellman began with shots of a small town and the bar that served as a flash point of civilization before switching to nocturnal scenes that symbolized the posse members’ individual and collective descent into moral darkness.

Although 1885 was surely chosen as the date for the novel and film because it was when the American frontier was still considered open, it also happens to be the last year in which white lynching victims outnumbered black ones. From this point on, the practice became overwhelmingly a weapon of racial control. Viewing lynching as a realistic possibility on the frontier enabled audiences to understand the stark issues this extrajudicial resort to murder posed outside of a racial context.

Zanuck was correct about the film’s poor prospects. From its earliest previews, audiences didn’t know what to expect and were not happy with the film’s tragic ending. But he was also right that it was a story worth telling. Critics hailed it immediately, and, despite its box-office failure, it earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination. (Very unusually, the movie earned no other Academy Award nomination besides that.)

Sometimes considered the first “serious” western novel, The Ox-Bow Incident is also considered the forerunner of the “psychological” and “allegorical” western film genres. It dispensed with gunfights, guys in white and black hats, confrontations with Indians, and cowboy heroes. Instead, it considered the fragile circumstances by which men in society maintained the thinnest veneer of civilization.

It starts from the first scene in the bar, and hinges on the distorted sexual dynamics that will play a role in the later resort to vigilante justice. Told that a woman he had an understanding with, Rose, has unexpectedly skipped town, a drunken Gil (played by Fonda) ends up pummeling another townsman and, in turn, is knocked out by the bartender. As much in need of the restraints of the law as anyone else in town, he is also left gravely aware that he is an odd man out. When sidekick Art Croft (played by Harry Morgan) says they didn’t have to ride with the posse, Gil responds testily: “Look kinda funny if we hadn't, wouldn't it?” 

To satisfy the Hays Office, Hollywood’s censorship arm, Twentieth-Century Fox was forced to make Gil into a less passive member of the posse. The resulting changes helped solidify the Fonda’s image as the personification of American decency and fighter against injustice, one that he would enhance with 12 Angry Men, The Wrong Man, and The Best Man.

Trotti’s script, like Clark’s novel, dispensed with the usual genre clich├ęs about the goodness of the common, uncorrupted man of the West. The denizens of Bridger’s Wells are animated by displacement, fear, and resentment of the outsider—all too malleable material for a cruel man with a will to power like “Major” Tetley, who dresses up in a Confederate uniform even though, Gil tells Croft angrily, he never served a day in the army.

Carter and Croft are buffeted by the same forces afflicting the other members of the posse, though. Opening and closing shots of them riding into town establish them as solitary drifters, with no standing in the community that would allow them to effectively challenge Tetley or influence the posse’s vote on whether to string up the unlucky trio they come across at night out in the valley.

In fact, nothing stands out so much in the film as the overwhelming ineffectuality of opponents of the lynching. The fiercest of these, the elderly storekeeper Davies, is dismissed with, “Shut up, Grandma. Nobody expects you to go.” Major Tetley browbeats his son into participating in the posse with, “I’ll have no female boys bearing my name.”

The two potboilers that Zanuck got Wellman to make in exchange for the director’s special project, Thunder Birds: Soldiers of the Air (1942) and Buffalo Bill (1944), are little remembered today. But many of the great westerns to come that explored the psychology of westerners or that used the West as allegorical settings for the issues of their time were made possible by The Ox-Bow Incident: The Gunfighter, High Noon, The Naked Spur, The Searchers, Vera Cruz, Cheyenne Autumn, The Wild Bunch, and Unforgiven

In trying to show readers how Germany, the country that produced Goethe and Beethoven, could cause the mayhem of Kristallnacht, Clark set his tale of a mob that yields up their individual consciences in a setting far closer to home: the American West. 

Those who doubt that such a tragedy—featuring a leader who denounces opponents as weaklings, and followers too nervous or apathetic to stand firmly in the way—can occur in today’s America have not paid much attention to the news recently.