What's in a name?
There is a well-read periodical in New York City called the Chelsea Clinton News. It is not devoted to the activities of the former First Daughter. Long before she was born, the newspaper had already been reporting on two adjacent New York neighborhoods: Chelsea and Clinton.
Clinton was, I believe, named for a very popular mayor of New York (starting in 1803), who also held other offices and was the driving force behind the Erie Canal. The neighborhood is approximately synonymous with Hell’s Kitchen, west of Times Square.
Chelsea, to its south, was once an estate (named for the London borough), which, when it was established in 1750, was miles north of urban New York. Its most famous spot is probably the Chelsea Hotel, said to have been the tallest building in the city from when it was built in 1884 until 1902.
The World Trade Center took the tallest-building-in-New-York title from the Empire State Building in 1970. No one thought the Empire State Building would ever get it back.
The Chelsea Hotel was home to, among others, Lily Langtry, Mark Twain, Edgar Lee Masters, Thomas Wolfe, Virgil Thomson, Dylan Thomas, Arthur C. Clarke, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, William Burroughs, and Brendan Behan. There isn’t room on its facade for plaques honoring all of its famous residents. You can still stay there; it’s less expensive than many other New York hotels.
Not quite two years ago, my wife and I stayed at a Manhattan hotel, the Edison on 47th Street, where I worked yesterday. Even though we live only a little over a mile away, the intense security surrounding the millennium Times Square New Year’s Eve show made it advisable for those of us working on it to stay closer. Today, many Manhattan residents are staying in New York hotels; they were made homeless, at least temporarily, by the disaster.
It may seem strange that they are still homeless. It has, after all, been more than three weeks since the attack. But this morning’s news reported that the fire at the World Trade Center site is still burning.
The producer/director of the millennium New Year’s show was the same as the one who put together the Yankee Stadium memorial. This weekend he contacted those of us who had worked on the memorial to let us know the Yankees were offering us free admission in appreciation of our work. On the millennium show, one of the perks was free hot beverages at Timothy’s, a chain of coffee shops, one of which is on a corner near our apartment.
Ghassan Mustafa, a restaurateur in Spring Lake, North Carolina, near Fort Bragg, was quoted in the New York Times on Friday about establishments with that name. “When Timothy McVeigh did that terrorism in Oklahoma, nobody who owned a place called Timothy’s changed the name. So why should I?”
Mustafa’s place isn’t called Timothy’s or Mustafa’s or Ghassan’s. He kept the name it originally had when he bought it in 1999. After all, “This was already a popular place, and people around here knew it by a certain name.” It was named for the previous owner, Osama Yousef. The restaurant is called “Osama’s Place.”
As reporter Stephen Kinzer put it in the Times article, “The name Osama has long been an honorable one in the Arab world. It means ‘big cat,’ and the walls of Osama’s Place are decorated with framed pictures of lions and tigers.”
After hearing from a waitress that some people had said they wanted to bomb the restaurant, however, Mustafa said, “Maybe I should think about changing the name.”
What’s in a name? When O. Henry stayed at the Chelsea Hotel, he registered under a different name every night.
There’s one Bin Laden in the current Manhattan residential telephone listings; I don’t know how many Osamas there are. The Bin Laden Construction Company, a highly respected firm until recently, named for someone who built a road that seemed impossible to build at the time, is now losing business.
One strange bit of aftermath from the attack is construction related. The last concrete plant in Manhattan closed in 1987. But concrete goes bad if it isn’t delivered fast enough, and the traffic tie-ups have been delaying concrete trucks too long. So it looks like there is a concrete plant in Manhattan’s immediate future. Before the attack, on an average day, 3,000 cubic yards of concrete entered Manhattan.
As with turbans vs. blond hair, the scariness of names seems to be a matter of familiarity and association. As the old joke goes, if you want a career as a comedian, Hitler is not necessarily the best name to choose.
There used to be four Schubin listings in the Manhattan phone book: two of them me and two my brother. Our parents both came from the same town in Poland (but met in New York). There’s even a town called Schubin in Poland (spelled Szubin, as some of my American cousins still spell their names), but I’m told the name is most common in Russia. In St. Petersburg, several rooms of the Russian Museum are devoted to the works of Schubin.
I try to imagine what I would run into if someone from Russia named Schubin committed a heinous crime in America. What I imagine is not pleasant.
What’s in a name? Are the sounds criminal? Are the letters terrorists? Is Capulet better or worse than Montague? Must we wait until Juliet and Romeo are both dead before we cool our anger?
A New York radio show ran a contest called “Five Sounds in Search of an Author” on the Sunday before the attack. They played five sounds. Entrants had to write an ultra-short story incorporating the sounds and lasting no longer than it took to play them.
I entered. At the time, I was most annoyed by primary-election candidates making automated campaign phone calls and filling up my answering machine (former mayor Ed Koch threw in his two-cents on the primary runoff today). So I wrote a story involving a reversal of time to an earlier era, one without automated campaign phone calls.
After the attack, I initially felt bad about my entry. At the end of my story, the World Trade Center would not have existed.
When asked by reporters what should happen now, many New Yorkers have responded that they wanted to go back to September 10 — or to life before the attack. So, maybe a time-reversal story isn’t so bad.
Yesterday, I was called by someone from the show, who said I was a finalist. Today, she called to have me read my story for broadcast. We talked for some time. I mentioned my mixed feelings about the piece. Then she reminded me of its title.
It’s “Starting Over.”