I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men.
– Isaac Newton
A brave man dies once, a coward a thousand times.
The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.
A Chance Encounter with William A. Weber
In early February of this year, I was having a brutal day in the markets and, as I often do on such occasions, I stepped outside for a moment to get some fresh air and collect my thoughts. Within moments along came an old man with a walker and a kind disposition. I had noticed him around before, but we had never exchanged more than a friendly smile and a quick hello. I am not always the most talkative person in the world when I don’t know someone (particularly if I am in a bad mood); however, for some reason I felt compelled to spark a conversation with this old man and he was more than happy to oblige.
I realized pretty quickly that I had come across someone special. From the moment he started talking there was a light that shone from his eyes and an energy that radiated from his being that was simply unmistakable. His name is William Weber, and as he described it, “I am 93 years young.” He told me a little about his life. He started off by telling me how he has worked at the University of Colorado at Boulder since 1946. It was also in 1946 that he founded the University’s Herbarium. Rather quickly, our conversation progressed into his background. Like me he was born in New York City. The only difference is he was born exactly 60 years before me, in 1918. He told me about his days in The Kingsbridge Road section of the Bronx. He then mentioned that he has been trying to find someone to take pictures of all the childhood places of his youth. Coincidentally, I was set to travel to NYC the following week and so I volunteered to make the trip and take the photos for him.
My Trip to Kingsbridge Road
The first step was to get a list of the destinations. He emailed me them rather quickly, and I must admit, I was a bit overwhelmed. The list was longer than I thought, but the first item on the list immediately drew me in. It was Edgar Allen Poe’s cottage, which William wrote “was a favorite place for me to visit, because of the raven that sat on the mantelpiece.”
As for me, I grew up in Midtown Manhattan. My parents still live in the apartment I grew up in. I went to high school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, which is a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood in the northern section of the borough, nothing like what you would imagine an area of New York City to look like. Let’s just say my familiarity with Kingsbridge Road was limited.
The Sunday afternoon that I decided to take the subway ride to Kingsbridge Road was cool and clear. I debated whether or not it would be a good idea to bring my Nixon D90 SLR camera or not. In the end, I decided to take it and if I felt unsafe I would just leave it in the carrying bag and take the pictures with my iPhone. The subway ride felt pretty normal at first. It was the same train you would take to go to Yankee Stadium. However, as the stations passed by the crowd started to change as did the entire energy in the cars. Gone were the last of the yuppies with the carefree looks on their faces. In came the serious faces, the faces of people with serious problems. People that have to scramble each and every day of their lives to survive. The clothing was generally worn and cheap and the conversations I overheard were cryptic and heavy.
Once I got off the train I attempted to orient myself in what seemed like a strange land despite it being the city of my birth. I quickly realized it would not be a great idea to take out my large camera and wear it around my neck everywhere. This isn’t a popular tourist destination. Once I was able to get my bearings, I started walking over to the Edgar Allen Poe cottage. It was right along the Grand Concourse, which is a major thoroughfare. I really started to grasp that the area I was in wasn’t as safe as the areas I normally frequent when I noticed the door was locked. A few moments after ringing the bell a timid, gentle British man opened up the door and rushed me in. He locked it back up behind me. This was about 2pm.
The cottage tour was fun but I had places to go. This is where things started getting a little tricky. To get to the apartment he grew up in, the public school that he attended and the homes of relatives he wanted me to photo, I had to go into the heart of some neighborhoods rather than just hang around on near the main road. Here, the streets weren’t crowded at all. More importantly, there was a general heaviness that permeated the air. In the neighborhoods I normally frequent, whether here in Colorado or in NYC, there is a general vibrancy to everyday life that emanates from the surroundings. There was none of that apparent here. People seemed beaten down and hopeless. It was palpable and very depressing. One other thing that stood out was the fact that there seemed to be brand new cars everywhere. It seemed completely out of place with everything else I witnessed in the environment. At first I wondered whether it was related to illicit activities, but I have since realized it is probably just a manifestation of all the subprime auto loans going around.
The rest of my journey went off without a hitch. I was able to find and photograph pretty much every place he requested. As it got later in the day, I recall really wanting to get out of there as soon as possible. Particularly as the sun starting to grow lower on the horizon. I felt really awful about what I had witnessed. It wasn’t the material aspects of the neighborhood that affected me. It was the depressed energy of the community. It felt very third world. It was extremely sad.
As I waited on the subway platform for my train home, I remember it seemed to take forever for it to arrive. Once I got on and started back home I recall a huge sigh of relief. What really got me though was exiting the subway station at Grand Central Station. Walking out into the street with the gleaming Chrysler building shooting skyward made me feel a massive sense of wealth as well as modernity’s inescapable presence. The contrast absolutely blew my mind, yet the place I had just been was only ten miles away and in the same city. The city of my birth. The city of William Weber’s birth.
Take the Journey for Yourself
I had considered writing about this journey several months ago, but I clearly never got around to it. The reason that I decided to finally write about it was because I had the idea to recommend others take the same trip. I know that many of my readers live in and around the NYC area, and so I request that you consider taking the time to retrace my steps one weekend. I think you will find the thoughts and feelings that you experience on such a trip to be well worth it even if they aren’t the same as mine.
Furthermore, I wouldn’t dismiss taking the trip just because you have visited many “poorer” places. So have I. I have travelled extensively in Central and South America and my brother was in the Peace Corps in Guatemala. When I visited him I stayed in his tiny village for a bit. The key thing is that this is right in your backyard. It’s a few hours. Give it a shot.
I also would ask that those that do take the trip post their experiences in the comments section or send me an email. I’d love to hear them.
So without further ado, here is the William Weber tour, in the words of the man himself:
My birthplace. When I was small, there was a hemlock forest in back of it. The Grand Concourse was the first street to the west. 2789 VALENTINE Ave. The apartment house where I was born, is on the west side of the street.
Across the street from 2789 a small private house is sandwiched in between apartment houses. There is still a small garden plot in front which when I saw it some years ago, is now painted red. One day when I was playing with Helen Wack, she accidentally pushed me off the stoop and I fell on my head on the concrete border. I got a depressed fracture which is still visible on my left forehead
The Edgar Allen Poe Cottage was a favorite place for me to visit, because of the raven that sat on the mantelpiece. It was or is at the junction of Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse.
P. S. 46 was a few blocks south of my home. I believe it was on Briggs Avenue which parallels Valentine.
My aunt’s house was a private house with a front porch, at 2665 Briggs Avenue. Josie was my favorite aunt, and I spent a lot of time devouring the magazines of natural history on the bookshelves of her living room
My father was a pharmacist. He worked at Atkins Drug Store, which was on 199th Street and Valentine. It had become a Latino food store when I last saw it.
Finally, here is a great story on William from a local paper that discusses how they have named the Herbarium after him.
Peace and Wisdom,