New York words

On Tuesday, the weather was so glorious as I rode around Central Park that I could almost forget the lack of snow. The waterfowl were here in force. There were swans and ducks in the lake and Canada geese in the meer — in January! The geese avoided the small pile of plowed snow at the shady corner of the shore. The ice in the Lasker skating rink was melting.

Wednesday was darker and foggy — normally a perfect day for some unsuspecting tourist to be scared to death by the Central Park puma.

But I’m not sure that will ever happen now.

The puma, I now know, has a name, Still Hunt. It crouches above head height on a rock outcropping halfway up Museum hill, ready to spring on any tasty-looking jogger.

It is a site-specific sculpture. It was done by Edward Kemeys, whose wildlife bronzes also adorn landmarks in Chicago and Philadelphia. I know this because there is now a large sign posted under the sculpture, effectively preventing anyone from being surprised by its form emerging from the fog and gloom. Shucks!

Thursday was a wet and raw day. According to reports, there was some friendly demonstration planning going on between potential World Economic Forum protesters and police, but I don’t think either felt like doing much in the rain. Friday, there were thunderstorms.

I don’t know why the World Economic Forum is meeting here instead of in Davos. The generally accepted line is that it’s to show solidarity with New York. Word from Davos is that the Swiss ski resort didn’t want to get stuck with security costs again. But I suspect it REALLY has to do with our food and entertainment.

Last week we ate at a restaurant serving kosher south-India cuisine.

Then we went to see a couple of operas, one by Henry Purcell and the other by Darius Milhaud. They were being performed by the Henry Street Chamber Opera, one of New York’s more-than-40 opera companies. I don’t think there’s another city in the world with as many.

The two most-prominent opera companies here are the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera. They are both based in Lincoln Center.

The Met performs in a 4,000-seat opera house with superb acoustics and backstage facilities. The City Opera performs in the New York State Theater, an auditorium intended for dance (and still home to the New York City Ballet), with acoustics designed to deaden the sound (of feet) coming from the stage.

The City Opera has long been hoping for a home of its own. There was a theory that such a new auditorium might be included in a billion-dollar Lincoln Center reconstruction plan. But the Met has no desire to assist a competitor. The fight is providing fodder for New York journalists.

The cartoons, alone, are world-class.

There used to be 11 major English-language general-circulation daily newspapers here, many of them headquartered near the site of the World Trade Center. One, the World Journal Tribune, had a brief life that ended before the Twin Towers opened. That was “World” as in the World Telegram and Sun, “Journal” as in the Journal-American, and “Tribune” as in the Herald Tribune — seven newspaper names right there (and even more subsumed within them).

There are still quite a few daily newspapers here. Some are oriented towards particular ethnic groups. Some are for particular political leanings. And many are in languages other than English.

The Flushing (no cracks, please) branch of the Queens Public Library carries all of New York’s foreign-language newspapers. It’s also said to have actively circulating books in more languages than any other library in the world.

New York is full of libraries. Queens and Brooklyn each have their own systems. What’s called the New York Public Library serves the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. And then there are others.

A bunch of engineering societies for many years maintained a joint library across the street from the United Nations. I used to be able to go there to look through the notebooks of the people who developed our current television system. Then the United Engineering Societies shipped all of its library materials off to an archive in the mid-west.

New York’s journalists didn’t even notice. The Museum of Modern Art’s shipping of its library of film stills to another out-of-state archive, however, is almost as big a story as the City Opera versus the Met.

The New York Public Library is best known for its main building, sometimes called the 42nd-Street Library. It has miles of stacks buried beneath Bryant Park. Anyone, without showing any identification, can go to the main reading room and request materials from those underground stacks.

I used to spend a lot of time at a place officially called the Annex, a library in an industrial neighborhood on 43rd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues. It used to house the New York Public Library’s main newspaper collections, its patent collections, and rare books.

Sometimes I’d be researching both newspapers and patents. I’d select the room I wanted to be in (both were light and airy, with large worktables), and the librarians in the other room would cheerfully bring their materials to me — that is, such materials as I couldn’t get for myself. Many of the old newspapers and most of the old patents were on open shelves. If I found a 19th-century British patent that referred to another, I could just wander over and look it up.

There was a single computer terminal available to researchers in the old patent library. It offered access to the patent database. There was an unwritten code of behavior for its use. If you had extensive database searching to do, you could monopolize the terminal all day, but, if someone else asked for a few minutes to locate some patent numbers, you would take a short break.

A few years ago, the patent library (and many other collections) were moved to a new Science, Industry, and Business Library, abbreviated SIBL and pronounced like a female prophet. It’s a horrifying glimpse into the future, and not just because it’s largely underground with tiny work carrels.

When SIBL opened, instead of just a single patent terminal, there was a roomful. But each terminal could access all of the library’s electronic databases, so they were in great demand. IBM provided a touch-screen terminal-reservation system. The designers decided that people should be allowed one hour on a terminal per day — neither more nor less. So someone with lengthy database searching would have to come back day after day (or use aliases). And someone who needed a minute to look up a patent number left a terminal idle (but unusable) for the next 59.

There’s now a patent-database terminal in the patents room, but it’s small comfort. The books of old patents remain at the Annex. If there’s an old patent you want to look up, you fill out a form, and it’s delivered the next day. And, if it mentions another old patent, that’s another form and another day.

I shouldn’t really say “it’s delivered.” Something gets delivered.

One day, I wanted to look something up in the 1936 volume of the Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers. The New York Public Library computerized its catalog in 1972, an era when many people used drugs. Those Proceedings are not listed in the catalog as “Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers” or “Proceedings of the I.R.E.” or “I.R.E. Proceedings” or “Institute of Radio Engineers Proceedings.”

They’re listed simply as “Proceedings.” They’re one of 1,446 periodicals listed the same way (out of 5,435 total periodicals called “Proceedings” in the library’s collections).

The slip one fills out to get something from the collections leaves about an inch of space for the “call number.” This is the call number of what I wanted: “TTFA (Institute of Radio Engineers. Proceedings) Vol. 1 (1913)-v.50 (1962).”

When my request number lit up, I went to retrieve my volume and was told they didn’t have it. I was about to leave disappointed when the staffer added, “It wasn’t published in 1936.” I said it was. He showed me the printout from the stack searcher. It was for the Proceedings of the Institution of Radio Engineers of Australia, call number “TTFA (Institution of Radio Engineers, Australia. Proceedings).”

I’m delighted to know the library has that. Someday I might even want to check it. Eventually I was able to convince the staff to try again.

Then I wanted to check an 1899 issue of the Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. The holdings of the New York Public Library are so complete that they had even this 19th-century UK periodical.

Unfortunately, the computerized catalog did not tell how to ask for it.

When the New York Public Library opened SIBL, it also made the computerized catalog available on the Internet. Unfortunately, at SIBL, it’s available ONLY via the Internet. Someone in the library has the same delays as someone at home. Only after extensive “Host contacted; waiting for reply” time did I discover the listing problem.

I tried the SIBL librarians, who found my problem very puzzling. While they pondered the mysteries of the computer catalog, I wandered over to the Black Book.

The Black Book is a misnomer. It’s more like a whole room of large black books. Each page of each volume is filled with photocopies of the cards from the old card catalog.

On page 300 of volume 375, I quickly found “Institution of Electrical Engineers, London. Journal” along with a simple call number, “VGA.” I had the volume in hand in moments.

The ways of bureaucracies are often mysterious. The head of SIBL has changed some of their bizarre practices and apologized to me for others that wouldn’t be changing so as not to offend the donors of the high-technology “solutions.”

Flying these days I get to experience the latest bureaucratic high-tech solutions. At Newark Airport on Friday, my wife was stopped at security for an extra inspection of a see-through mesh bag she was carrying. A pad for the explosive-sniffing machine was run across the thin, see-through mesh, but didn’t touch the only portable electronic item in the bag. A small, transparent pill box had to be opened. Then, after each item had been carefully inspected, the bag was refilled and then x-rayed a second time.

At Midway Airport yesterday, we were told at check-in that we’d have our IDs checked three more times: twice in security and once at the gate.

Sure enough, as we entered the passenger-only area, our licenses were compared to our boarding passes. Then, perhaps 50 feet farther down the same corridor, another guard scrutinized out licenses but ignored our boarding passes. It’s hard to imagine what that second ID inspection was for, but it didn’t delay us significantly.

In the “hard to imagine” category this week was a rumor that former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani was being considered for the Nobel Peace Prize. Peace? The man who tried to prevent world leaders he didn’t like from even entering the city to get to the United Nations? The man who used to scream at people with whom he disagreed? But I had forgotten what he did on September 11.

I’m not referring to his important reassurances to the people of the city or his superb management of the crisis or his honest reporting of the situation, each of which was certainly worthy of some prize. I’m referring to these specific words of his on the day we were attacked:

“Hatred, prejudice, and anger are what caused this terrible tragedy, and the people of the city of New York should act differently. We should act bravely. We should act in a tolerant way.”

Amen, Rudy. Pax vobiscum.



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