Old-School Time Machine


Cover of the hardcover edition (2010) of “Over Here!: New York City During World War II” by Lorraine B. Diehl, from Smithsonian Books, HarperCollins.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”—L.P. Hartley

I needed a time machine. It was the middle of the winter 2011 and I was sitting in a coffee shop staring out over a snow-covered Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan’s East Village, working out the story for Mantis. I had decided I wanted my hero to find himself catapulted from Manhattan in the spring of 2012 to Manhattan in the spring of 1940, where he would become a secret agent trying to rescue a Jewish refugee from a clandestine group known as the Black Suits, a group that would at first appear to be involved in a Nazi plot. Though all the characters would be imagined and the paranormal would feature as a growing theme throughout the trilogy, I wanted to stay as true as possible to history where I could. Problem was—all the research I had done to date on the history of this time period hadn’t given me the kind of clear picture I wanted of what it was like in Manhattan at the time.

I knew the spring of 1940 would have been unique for the city. On September the 3rd of the year before, Britain and France declared war against Germany. But the States wouldn’t join the allies till Pearl Harbor, more than a year into the future. While the world war brewed across the sea, the American government would have been preparing for a war it might not be able to avoid, and the people would have been wondering if—and hoping that—they could pull themselves out of the Great Depression. But what exactly would it be like for a Jewish refugee in the city? What were New Yorkers thinking and doing about Nazis—German and American? Those, and a hundred other similar questions, roiled through my mind as I sipped my coffee across from the park.

With great luck, on my way back to my hotel, I found the time machine I needed in the Strand bookstore, one of my favorite places in the world. The book was Lorraine Diehl’s Over Here: New York City During World War II. Later that night, while a blizzard buried the city, I began poring through the book and finding answer after answer to my many questions. As Diehl explains, New York had an odd bifurcation through the ‘30s—while Jewish refugees flooded into the Upper West Side, members of the Bund—a German American pro-Nazi organization—would flaunt the Nazi flag during parades in Yorkville’s Germantown in the Upper East Side and rallies in Madison Square Garden. Stores in Yorkville would openly display Nazi paraphernalia. Anti-Nazi rallies would rage, but the American Nazis fought hard to win support. The mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, half Jewish, deplored—as much of the city did—the American Nazis and had pursued their demise. As news of German Nazi atrocities spread through New York, anti-Nazi sentiment mounted. Finally in ‘39 LaGuardia succeeded in arresting the Bund’s despicable leader, effectively quashing the New York Nazi movement. So, by the time the spring of 1940 would roll around and my hero would arrive, New Yorkers were suspicious of German spies and on guard for anything Nazi, fearing a fifth column.

Below is an excerpt from Mantis, in which Lucas finds himself on 1940s Manhattan’s streets in a Guns N’ Roses concert T-shirt:

“It’s not safe out there for you, Lucas.”

I step into a narrow hallway where chips in the walls expose multiple layers of paint, variations on the theme of off white. I shamble along a worn runner to the head of a staircase. Kay is waddling down the hall after me, the floor groaning under his weight. I lean into a handrail and hobble down the stairs. The movement causes blood to flow and my legs get steadier with each step. By the time I get to the bottom I’m walking almost normally. I head through a tiny vestibule and out onto the sidewalk.

The sun hits me straight in the face, bright and hot. I squint and put a hand out, feel a cooling breeze on my skin. I take a breath, inhaling the smells carried on the air from the park—of flowers and cut grass. Other smells follow in their wake, of bitter exhaust and fresh paint. I turn. A workman crouches at the bottom of a ladder, stabilizing it for someone standing on the top step painting a storefront sign: Carlo’s Butcher Shop. Someone opens the door beneath the sign releasing a cloud of spicy, redolent sausage. Its odor is tantalizing, real.

On the other side of the butcher’s is a luncheonette spot offering fountain service, a big red Coca-Cola sign projecting overhead. Beyond that, there’s an ice cream parlor selling orange drinks for five cents, a photo shop, cigar store. A newsstand sits on the street corner, above it the cross street signs read E 10th Street and Avenue A. This is Tompkins Square Park. I’m nowhere near the Daniels Museum. And this isn’t the gentrified park I know it to be. It appears to be working class.

I feel a hand on my back. “Lucas—” Kay nods to the doorway. “You’re in danger out in public, dressed the way you are. Let’s go back inside.”

I take a step forward, away from Kay. I look around. Kids are swinging from monkey bars in a play area in the park. A woman pushes a squeaky stroller along a paved path. A young boy with a cap polishes the shoes of a businessman sitting in a chair reading a paper. I shake my head. All so real, all so impossible.

A boy on a bicycle clatters past me just under my nose. He continues for a few more seconds then sticks his foot out and screeches to a halt. He swivels around to face me and stares, mouth agape, at my T-shirt.

Kay steps back into the doorway. “Now, please, Lucas, come back inside. Your undershirt. It looks like a death’s-head—the symbol of the Nazi SS.”

But I stay rooted in my spot. The boy stabs a finger at me and starts hollering. He’s looking down the street and I turn to follow his gaze.

A policeman, the same policeman I saw in the subway, is strolling down the sidewalk about thirty yards away. He looks to the boy, then to me.

From the doorway, Kay gestures frantically for me to hurry inside.

I spin around, trying to assess whether I should run, and which way—across the road to the park, or down the street. The cop is closing in.

“Lucas, listen to me, you’ll get caught out there. You have no papers. Manhattan has no sympathy for Nazis now. They’ll send you to Sing Sing and you’ll be stuck there forever. You’ll die there.”

I glance at the cop, who’s running now, hand hovering over his holster. I dash back into the building. Kay tells me to run, hurry, go change into some of my father’s clothes from the closet.

Within seconds, I’m up the stairs and back in the office, undressing. I’m standing by the closet tugging down the sleeves of my father’s wide-lapelled double-breasted brown jacket by the time Kay enters, wheezing.

I’m fully dressed except for socks and shoes. I ask Kay for those, but he waves a hand. “Don’t worry,” he gasps. “Just get behind the desk.”

He closes the door just before the shadow of the cop falls across the frosted glass. Kay grabs one of the fedoras from the nearby coat rack and deftly—for a stocky man—twirls it through the air at me like a Frisbee. I put it on, lower the brim then sit down and flip open one of the files on the desk, pretending to work. The smell of my father wafts from the clothes. It’s his scent minus the fifteen years of dust. My throat thickens.

The cop raps on the door frame, rattling the glass. “Police. Open up.”

Kay opens the door and invites the officer inside. “How can I help you?” he says in a bright, cheery voice.

Heavy shoes thump on hardwood as the cop steps into the room. He’s huffing and in a breathy voice introduces himself as Officer Brian O’Keefe, says he’s looking for a young man dressed in dungarees, some kind of odd footwear and an undershirt that bears a Nazi death’s-head.

“Good Lord,” Kay says. “A Nazi. But no, I haven’t seen him.”

“And you, sir?” O’Keefe calls out.

With my face still turned to the desk I shake my head.

“Nobody’s come in here all day,” Kay says. “It’s just been the two of us working.”

“Right.” O’Keefe’s shoes sound on the floor. He’s walking around, gradually making his way toward me.

“It’s terrible,” Kay says, “these Nazis, they’re all over Manhattan now, aren’t they?”

O’Keefe’s shadow darkens my desk. I’m flipping through pages in the file folder, keeping my head down.

He moves to the edge of the desk and I pray he can’t hear the thundering of my heart in my chest. A thick, calloused palm appears before my downturned eyes. “Your papers, sir.”


On the Waterfront: Or, the Time I Got Arrested at the NY Harbor

Cover of the hardcover edition (2010) of “Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront” by Nathan Ward, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Oh, the things I’ve done for the sake of Mantis.

A couple days before 2011 began, my girlfriend and I braved the snowbanked sidewalks and trudged through Manhattan’s West Side neighborhoods edging the Hudson—known as the North River during the ‘40s, the time that Lucas is thrown back to.

It was near midnight, and I wanted to get a feel for what the harbor looked and felt like at night. I’ve always been fascinated by harbors—the caw of birds, water lapping against pilings, horns blaring, ships coming and going, from and to strange and mysterious places. Escape, adventure, promise….

But also, danger. Especially in the 1940s. Ships would leave the harbor to face storms, pirates, torpedoes that could put an end—an eternal one—to the adventures of their passengers. A yearning lover might  wait at the harbor for their beloved’s ship to come in and find themselves waiting forever. Refugees fleeing Nazi-threatened or occupied countries might arrive at the dock and be refused entry, turned away, if they didn’t have the right papers. Or anyone who offended the wrong person on the waterfront might be fitted with cement shoes and sent to the river’s weedy bottom.

All of these dangers feature in some way in Mantis, so I really needed to get a handle on Manhattan’s harbor. But there was one danger that hadn’t figured in my mind as I leaned out with my camera over a railing near Pier 93, the quay used by the RMS Queen Mary, the luxury liner that ran between England and New York in the late 30s. Later, in the war, like other liners, it was repurposed as a troopship.

From behind me, the cold wind carried a loud holler, “You, stop right there.” I froze and my cold hands just about dropped my camera in the water. Footsteps closed in on us and a deep voice ordered us both to turn around. Two men, one dressed in a uniform, began to interrogate us, wanting to know what we were doing there, why we were taking pictures.

After listening to our story and checking our camera, and satisfying themselves that they were indeed talking to a harmless writer and his girlfriend, the two men informed us they were acting on behalf of Homeland Security, that the harbor was some kind of priority zone and that we should vacate immediately.

As we shirked across the street, in the shadow of a Hustler club, I considered how different the harbor must have been seventy years ago, long before the law enforced its powers.

To help me discover the harbor of the past, the harbor my hero would haunt, I turned to my usual tactic—scouring Manhattan’s bookstores. At 192 Books in Chelsea, I found Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront by Nathan Ward. It proved to be a beautifully written book and a perfect eye into the waterfront during the ‘40s—a time when gangsters like “Cockeye” Dunn ruled the harbor with rackets, extortion and violence. Elia Kazan’s Oscar-winning film On the Waterfront, based on Arthur Miller’s play, would help provide visuals—a waterfront sans the gentrified neighborhoods and the trolling Homeland Security guards. A waterfront that includes the now-razed West Side Elevated Highway. I’m grateful to both works for helping fill in the gaps.

Below is a brief excerpt from Mantis—when Lucas learns that the woman he’s been trying to rescue, the woman of his dreams, might have run into one of the harbor’s notorious dangers.

I stand at the edge of a pier on the Hudson, the waterway they’re calling the North River, in my father’s trench coat, shaking inside and trying not to retch.

The sky is overcast and a light drizzle falls, puddling on the cement quay. A few feet away from me, Olivia, wearing a turquoise raincoat, shivers under an umbrella. Beside her Conti yells orders at a couple of men in oilskins operating a dredging barge that bobs in the water below. They’ve been looking for Elsa’s body all morning.

The reek of dead fish and diesel rises off the dark, murky water. Vessels of all types—tugs and ferries, barges loaded with railway containers, lighters piled high with garbage—pack the river. Some float languidly on the surface, others chug headlong through the water, blowing horns and sirens that rattle my nerves.

Nearby, several longshoremen, grappling hooks hanging from their back pockets, sling a giant crate off a steamer. When it lands with an exploding thud on the cement dock, I clasp my hands over my stomach.

Olivia turns to me. “You okay?”

I struggle to appear together. She stares at me till I nod that I’m fine, then turns to Conti. Raising her voice to speak over the racket from the boats and the dockers and the seagulls cawing overhead, she says, “Maybe she’s not in there.”

Conti turns. “Oh, she’s in there somewhere,” he says.

“And you’re sure she was alone?” I ask, wondering whether it was indeed a suicide, and not murder at the hands of the Beast. “Nobody was with her?”

“She was alone. We got a reliable witness says he saw her leap from the top of that container—” Conti points to a large metal shipping container sitting near us “—and smack her head right there—” he aims a finger at the crusty edge of the pier “—before she goes in the water. See the blood stains?”

Nausea rolls through me at the sight of the blood, possibly Elsa’s blood. I hold my breath till it subsides. Once I’ve steeled myself, I say, “That could be fish blood,” my voice cracking despite my efforts.



Finding a home in Manhattan 1940

A current view of a street ‘between the bridges’ near Lucas’s 1940 apartment

Finding my hero a home in Manhattan 1940 became a little bit of an obsession for me. I had a sense of it in my head—more my gut—a gritty tenement somewhere, a street where footsteps echo loudly, with dark alleys nearby, a railroad floor plan, a rickety floor…. There had to be thousands of these places in Manhattan back then, but where? Where exactly would my hero lay his head once he slipped through time, from 2012 to a New York decades before gentrification transformed large swaths of the island?

I would spend many hours on a few research trips to NYC hunting Lower Manhattan—circling the blocks around Greenwich Village, SoHo, Tompkins Square Park, the Williamsburg Bridge, trying to conjure up what they might have looked like decades earlier and praying that my instincts would tell me I was getting warmer, closer to something I could only vaguely identify as a feeling I expected to get. But that feeling never hit me, until—on a later trip—I trekked through the neighborhoods between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. That’s when I felt that pull inside me, that rush that told me Lucas’s home would have been here—but here was no longer there. Here—in 2011 as I researched the book—stood the Governor Alfred E. Smith Houses, a public housing project built in the 50s. But still, somehow, I felt strongly that Lucas, and his father Lorne before him, would have lived in this neighbourhood.

I badly wanted, needed, to know what the area looked like, smelled like, who lived in it—before the development. On foot, I started to scour used bookstores—dragging along my very patient girlfriend. After ransacking many a dusty shelf, I hit the jackpot on a bottom shelf in Alabaster Bookshop. The find: Life on the Lower East Side: Photographs By Rebecca Lepkoff, 1937-1950. Lepkoff, a brilliant young photographer at the time, made it a personal project to capture life in the area between the bridges. The book contains more than a hundred duotone photos—tenements festooned with laundry, razed lots surrounded by hoarding, laborers with grappling hooks, men hiding in the shadows under the El (now dismantled), seagulls swarming crates by the nearby Fulton Street Fish Market (now moved to the Bronx).

Lepkoff’s work was the key to finding Lucas’s home. As an homage, I named one of my characters after her.

I ended up locating Lucas’s home on the third floor of a cold-water flat on Olson Street, a fictitious street in the neighborhood now buried by the housing project.

Below is a brief excerpt from Mantis—when Lucas comes upon the street where he finds the home he is to inherit from his father:

I’m hoping the neighborhoods will improve as I get nearer Olson, but they don’t, and when I turn onto my father’s street, a narrow cobblestone road flanked by shabby tenements, my throat thickens. I can barely process the thought of my father living in this area, an area so decrepit that the city will soon tear it down, just like the blocks of gas tanks, to make room for a housing development. Did he not make any money working for Kay? Is this the best he could do? I touch his keys again and search the buildings for a number. The odds are on the south side, and his building must be midway down the block.

Slowly I cross the street, a street that reeks of putrid garbage as much as any I’ve walked along tonight. As I step onto the sidewalk, a geyser of steam whooshes out of a nearby manhole. Afterward, there’s an eerie silence, just my footsteps and the faint thump of cars on the bridges a few blocks either side of me. Some windows are lit, but not many, and I see nobody around.

I’m a couple of buildings away from my father’s when I detect another set of footsteps from somewhere behind me, just barely out of synch with mine. I turn, but see no one. I stand and wait, my eyes probing the bands of darkness between the reaches of the street lamps. I scan tenement facades on both sides of the street, searching doorways, every crevice within view. I start to stamp my heels on the sidewalk, mimicking the sound of me walking again. Within seconds, my eye catches on some movement, a shift of darkness under an archway across the street, a few apartment buildings down. I squint to get a better look and feel a sudden jolt when I detect a sliver of a dark jacket and the tip of a hat brim.