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After Work: The Day The Walls Talked

“Hey,” said Votek, the electronic whiz who was installing cables and wires to turn a back bedroom into a TV room. “What’s this?” He reached in the sizeable hole and pulled out a handful of yellowed newspaper.

“This’’ was part of the February 7, 1936, edition of the New York American, and Dona Gibbs went time-travelling as she perused the 70-year-old newsprint.

How many times have you marveled at some famous historic site, Versailles for example, and exclaimed to yourself, “If only these walls could talk.”

Not long ago the walls of our apartment did. Well, not so much talk as whisper.

Actually they started out screeching. Electricians were installing all kind of cables and wires to turn our back bedroom into a fantasy TV room for my husband with a huge plasma screen, four speakers and a subwoofer that could seriously endanger the foundation of the New York apartment house where we live.

Our apartment house and the two others on our short upper Eastside block were completed in 1929, each has a little Art Deco panache and each a sizeable list of droppable names, past and present, if one wishes to burden a conversation with that sort of thing. They all have views of a charming park and the East River. They also share the past taint of Depression-era foreclosures and some of the mammoth apartments in our building were carved into smaller but still family-friendly sized digs.

“Hey,” said Votek, the electronic whiz on the job, “What’s this?” He reached in the sizeable hole and pulled out a handful of yellowed newspaper.

“Wow, I got to see this,” I practically snatched the crumbling wad from his hand.

It was part of the February 7, 1936 edition of the New York American, a daily paper that’s now itself part of history. It was just a few scraps but they were packed with information.

White bread was advertised for seven cents a loaf. Rupert’s claimed that “It was the talk of the town,” and that Rupert’s Beer is not only a symbol of nice living—it is a part of good living.” And we were advised “Don’t say beer—say Rupert.” Slogan overload. Rupert’s, by the way major once a New York City-based brewery, is now a huge apartment complex.

Horn & Hardart, the late lamented automat, was offering a weekend takeout special of baked beans for 15 cents a pound. Yes, this was indeed the Depression when jobs and money were hard to come by.

“Italy Careful To Spare Rail Line in Africa” reported Karl H. Von Wiegand, a senior war correspondent. Italy had invaded Ethiopia three and a half months earlier. “Prague Protests Frontier Violation,” reads another headline on a two-inch story about “an alleged violation of the German-Czech border.” World War II was almost at the boil.

And there the rest of the hard news had been torn away, but what we would now call the lifestyle section was more intact.

“Fresh from an artichoke luncheon given to the ladies of the press in the ultra-smart Blue Room of the Willow Cafeteria at 634 Madison Avenue, we hasten to tell how the artichoke figured in every item of the complete meal from soup to pie” which if you can imagine such a thing was artichoke meringue. The writer goes on to describe each dish and ends with, “We wouldn’t have believed what lovely things you could do with an artichoke.”

The author of this and other gems such as “Sour Cream Improves the Taste of Many Foods,” was Penny Prudence and the fashion columnist was Prunella Wood. Penny and Prunella I suspect were one and the same. I imagine her stick-thin, with a pinched look, pounding away at her typewriter, cigarette smoldering in the ashtray, wishing with all her heart to be moved to City Desk.

The highlight of the section was a four-column spread called “Out of the Mouths of Babes”, probably a regular feature. Two amazing children are spotlighted. The reporter is obviously enthralled by 18-month-old George Harvey Roemer and was amazed to hear the 28- pound crooner run through most of his 18 song repertoire including, “I’m in the mood for love” which he delivered,” a little off-key, a little disdainful but definitely recognizable” His father predicted that in a year Georgie would be composing.

Janet Chapline Elder, “the six-year-old poetess of Nature” the reporter writes, sat down at her Brooklyn home and dashed off a couplet “exclusively for the New York American.”

She entitled it The Birds. It went “Tweet, tweet, tweet/The birds are very sweet.”

Curious as to their current whereabouts, I Googled these two wunderkind. I found a George H, Roemer in Las Vegas and then in Cottonwood, Arizona. No word that he had become the next Rudy Vallee. And no further mention of the ‘Poetess of Nature.”

The hole in the wall was soon patched up. The television is up and running. The picture definition is remarkable, but for me, the best thing about the project was the little bits of history the walls whispered.


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