Letter from my sofa

Over breakfast, Peter looked up from the paper to tell me that the New York Times has a word for what I do all day: “doomsurfing.” The trouble is that it’s hard to look away from a threat. Over the last few years, I have had bouts of being able to stay off social media that have lasted sometimes for months at a time, but in danger my instinct is to look at the danger, and after being stuck in the apartment for a week and a half, I can’t resist even a polluted conduit to friends and acquaintances. To judge by anguished emails from friends, I’m not the only person with this affliction. I suspect that writers are by inclination unusually susceptible to it.

“I need you to be on the team,” Peter said to me, an hour or two ago, when I interrupted his workday to tell him that Trump was bound to fire Fauci in a few days, if an interview that Fauci gave to Science magazine is any indication. Peter was repeating a sentence that I, insufferably, had said to him a few days earlier, when it had been his turn to spiral into anxiety. Another thing I’ve been hearing, in emails and in conversations with fellow dog walkers, is that longterm couples are having fights. Monogamy isn’t a strong enough word for the new cohabitation. On Saturday, Peter and I had a tiff because I wanted to take a long bike ride, and he felt he ought to go on it with me even though he’s not a fan of outer-borough biking. Halfway down Coney Island Avenue, we arrived the hard way at the realization that if we’re with each other 24/7, there’s no need for us to treat weekends as a special province of togetherness; it’s okay to do our own things.

Last week, when the mayor finally got around to advising people to stay in, I had the idea of writing a post on this blog that was going to say, Hey, guys, as a writer, I’ve been living the social distancing life for years, persisting for days and days without talking to anyone but husband and dog, and I think I should warn you. I didn’t, though, because the warning was just going to be depressing, namely, that after a few days of not seeing anyone but your significant other, you start to wonder what the point of your existence is, and to take irregularly timed naps, and to swing out into distant extravagances of mood. When you share physical space with groups of other people, you use them to keep your balance, and they use you to keep theirs, without anyone even necessarily being conscious of the use. A significant other goes a long way toward helping keep one’s balance but not far enough. One seems to need contact with a number of people sufficiently large to allow one to touch a kind of impersonality in person form. Joining a Cross Fit gym last fall helped give me this kind of regular challenging contact with other people, in a group that was structured but not controlled, but the city closed all gyms last Monday. I was probably the only person in New York City who sympathized with Mayor De Blasio’s profligate decision to go for one last workout. Online classes have been enjoyable but not quite the same. The separate physical space of the class provided a social affordance for slightly antisocial impulses, like showing off and competitiveness, a permission not quite extended when one is watching and repeating the movements from inside one’s domestic space. Over the years, I learned to recognize the early warning signs of too much isolation: irritability, weepiness, paranoid thinking. This tweet is really about me and it pisses me off and omg I think I’m going to cry! Now that I’ve shared what I know about the hazards of social distance, you see why I didn’t want to tell you: I don’t have a remedy. My remedy was always: you’re getting both squirrelly and dour, Caleb, which means it’s time to make plans to meet other people face-to-face. This weekend everybody suddenly seemed to be using the telephone again; maybe the phone will be a resource, and I for one am willing to give teleconferencing a try. But it’s possible that we’re all just going to have to suffer for a while, in separate cells. That’s going to suck.

We are social animals. Even in our isolations, everyone seems to be taking the same steps further into isolation at roughly the same time. There was the day when the directive to stay home made it hard to find alternate side parking because everyone was home and was on the spot to zip into the available parking spots. And then there was the day when it was easy, because everyone with a country house had absconded to it. “Love ya!” a neighbor shouted to me, yesterday morning, as she took the stairs instead of sharing the elevator with me, because yesterday was the day that everyone decided not to share the elevator anymore. It was also the day that strangers became wary of petting our dog. Just as a couple of days before was the day when it became not optional but required to wipe down the grocery cart handle.

I should end this post by making it clear that I understand sheltering in place to be as necessary as it is difficult. A friend who’s a young doctor, running a COVID-19 unit at a hospital in the city, wrote to me in an email yesterday: “Please do be very careful—I know that anecdote is not data and that I’m seeing precisely the worst cases, but I’ve just seen far too many intubations of otherwise healthy people over the past couple weeks, including some younger than me.” Another friend relays that a doctor-friend of his called last night to say that work in a hospital now feels like service in wartime. Confinement to the sofa may be durance vile, but it is the least that those of us not on the front lines can do.

What was the (New) York shilling?

Last night I was doing some Swedish death cleaning of old emails, as one does, and found that way back in 2006, when I was still attempting to write a book of New York history, I asked a listserv if anyone knew what was meant by a “shilling” in New York in the early 19th century. Then, about a month later, I reported back an answer. I gave up on that book of New York history long ago (and wrote Necessary Errors instead, and even returned the advance for the history book, which, I know, no one does), but at least to me as someone who today no longer knows much of anything about New York history, the answer I came up with looks impressively thorough and seems worth archiving. So here it is, for any googlers who need to know… (I have updated the links, all of which had died, but otherwise have left my 2006 answer more or less undisturbed by time.)

I wonder if any of you might be able to help me out with a numismatical question, or to point me in the direction of the answer. What was a “shilling” in New York City in the 1840s/1850s? I had thought it was just a way of saying 12.5 cents, and didn’t refer to an actual coin, but I’ve found an account of someone having his shilling engraved and framed (in the spirit that merchants today sometimes display above their cash registers the first dollar they ever took in). Any suggestions will be appreciated.

Thanks to everyone on the list who has helped out with the mystery of the New York shilling. It turns out the currency and coinage in the U.S. before the Civil War is a great big mess, and I’m not sure I’ve got the answer. But the emerging consensus seems to be that the New York shilling, or “York shilling,” was worth about 12.5 U.S. cents between the 1830s and 1850s, but that the actual coin referred to was a Spanish (or Latin American) real. There were eight reales in a Spanish dollar; thus the nickname for Spanish dollars, “pieces of eight.” (This would also explain the slang reference to a quarter as “two bits,” i.e., two reales, or two York shillings.) Frank Anderson found a picture of a Spanish real that circulated in New York, in the American Numismatic Society website.

The York shilling does not seem to have been equivalent to the English shilling or to the Canadian shilling. For example, in William Chambers’s Things as They Are in America (1854), the Astor Hotel is said to cost $2.50 a day, or “10s. English,” so it looks like an English shilling = 25¢. According to an 1834 guide for emigrants to Canada (Official Information for Emigrants, Arriving at New York and who are desirous of Settling in the Canadas, 5 Canadian shillings = 8 York shillings = US$1 = 4s 6d English money. (Of course, the exchange rate varied over time.)

Just as there were twelve English pence in an English shilling, there seem to have been twelve pence in a York shilling, making pence in New York almost equivalent to U.S. cents (12 N.Y. pence = 12.5¢). There’s an example of calculating in York shillings and pence in George G. Foster’s New York in Slices (1848). A waiter tallies up “Clamsoup sixpnce, rosebeef large, shilln, roastchikn eighteen, extra bread three, butter sixpnce, pickle sixpnce, pudn sixpnce, cheese three, claret two shilln,” and arrives at the sum of “seven shilln.” By a little primitive algebra, this means that 3 shillings + 48 pence = 7 shillings, and thus one York shilling is worth 12 pence. (Note that the pence in question would not be equivalent to English pence, which, like English shillings, would be roughly twice as valuable as the New York version.)

It seems hard to say for how long or how widely this meaning of a York shilling (i.e., 12.5¢, in the form of a Spanish coin) obtained. In the 1855 novel The Modern Othello, a young Irish boy in a morning of re-selling newspapers earns “50 cents, an one shillin’ an’ two fips,” which he later gives to his mother, saying, “There’s the 6 shillin’ an’ the two fips mother.” A “fip” seems to be a nickel; in any case, by his math, a shilling is worth only 10¢. Perhaps the value of a York shilling declined in the 1850s? Or maybe the novelist simply wasn’t much good at math. This is already more than I needed to know about New York coinage, so I’ll leave that mystery to other investigators. Thanks again to all who sent me advice and clues.

Working-class heroes

In the 26 August 2019 issue of The New Yorker, in an article titled “State of the Unions,” I review two new books on labor, Steven Greenhouse’s Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor and Emily Guendelsberger’s On the Clock: How Low-Wage Work Drives America Insane. Please check it out!

A few source notes: Very helpful to me in writing the review were Jake Rosenfeld’s wonky deep dive into union data, What Unions No Longer Do (2014), Nelson Lichtenstein’s humane and insightful State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (revised ed., 2013), and Greenhouse’s earlier collection of war stories, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker (2008). I also drew on Philip Dray’s There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America (2010), Joseph A. McCartin’s Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America (2011), and Kirstin Downey’s The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins—Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage (2009).

Most of the statistics in my review came from the books named above, with a few exceptions: In estimating that the proportion of union members in the labor force dropped from 12.2 percent in 1920 to 7.5 percent in 1930, I drew on Joshua L. Rosenbloom’s data, “Union membership: 1880–1999,” presented as table Ba4783 in Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial Edition On Line, edited by Susan B. Carter, Scott Sigmund Gartner, Michael R. Haines, Alan L. Olmstead, Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright (Cambridge, 2006) and on David R. Weir and Susan B. Carter’s data, “Labor force, employment, and unemployment: 1890–1990,” presented as table Ba470 in the same online sourcebook. In estimating that the proportion dropped from 35 percent in 1954 to 10.5 percent in 2018, I drew on Gerald Mayer’s Union Membership Trends in the United States (Congressional Research Service, 2004), p. 22, table a1, and on Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson’s Union Membership and Coverage Database from the Current Population Survey. In calculating the rate of strikes per decade, I drew on the data in the Bureau of Labor Statistics chart “Annual work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers, 1947-2018.”

The researchers, mentioned at the end of my article, who found a link between children’s having union parents and earning more later in life were Richard Freeman, Eunice Han, David Madland, and Brendan V. Duke in their working paper, “How Does Declining Unionism Affect the American Middle Class and Intergenerational Mobility?” (2015, NBER 21638). The researchers who found that right-to-work laws suppress voter turnout and Democratic vote share were James Feigenbaum, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, and Vanessa Williamson in their working paper “From the Bargaining Table to the Ballot Box: Political Effects of Right to Work Laws” (2018, NBER 24259).

Don’t believe everything you read in an FBI file

In late May, David J. Garrow, author of a well-regarded biography of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, published an upsetting claim: In a newly released cache of FBI documents, he claimed to have found credible evidence that King had “looked on, laughed and offered advice” while a fellow minister committed rape.

Garrow’s claim appeared in Standpoint, a rightwing British magazine, after more than two dozen other publications declined to run it. Soon after, a number of historians raised doubts about Garrow’s interpretation of the evidence, as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian reported. Several pointed out that it seemed naive to take an FBI document about King at face value, given the long campaign that the bureau had waged to discredit and demoralize him. Historians also noted that the words “looked on, laughed and offered advice” hadn’t even been typed but appeared in a handwritten annotation by an unidentified writer.

In his Standpoint article, Garrow explained why he gave credit to the words nonetheless. At the end of King’s life, the FBI was wiretapping King’s phone calls and bugging his hotel rooms. Garrow guessed that the handwritten annotation in question was made either by William C. Sullivan, an assistant director at the FBI, or one of his deputies, on the basis of a transcript of audio surveillance. “Without question Sullivan and his aides had both the microphone-transmitted tape-recording, and a subsequent full transcript at hand while they were annotating their existing typescript,” Garrow wrote. Garrow didn’t think it likely that Sullivan and his colleagues would have distorted their evidence because, he argued, “Sullivan could not have imagined that his and his aides’ jottings would ever see the light of day,” since at that point, none of the FBI’s internal files had ever been released to the public.

That claim seems a little far-fetched, given that Garrow himself describes, in his Standpoint article, how hotly the FBI lobbied the President and the attorney general for permission to put King under surveillance and keep him there. Often Sullivan and his colleagues were writing for an audience, though their audience was a select group of politicians rather than the general public. And if the aim of a piece of writing is to persuade, rather than merely to document, a historian has to read it more skeptically. Nor is it at all unreasonable to imagine that the bureau’s hatred of King might have distorted even its internal analysis; the campaign against King extended as far as sending the civil rights leader an anonymous letter advising him to kill himself, which doesn’t suggest that the bureau’s decision-makers were very cool and dispassionate.

Though the historian Barbara Ransby has critiqued Garrow’s claim incisively, the commentator Lance Morrow has found Garrow’s claim credible enough to wrestle with it, suggesting that it’s being taken seriously. I don’t have Ransby’s expert knowledge of King or of the mid-20th-century FBI, but when I followed the links in Garrow’s Standpoint article to his evidence, which is available online in the form of PDFs hosted by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), I noticed that the documents themselves provide reasons to doubt Garrow’s description of them. To be clear, the documents do seem to me to make it pretty hard to deny that King was a libertine in sexual matters—and maybe a more adventurous libertine than is popularly understood. But the allegation that King was a complacent bystander to rape is to my mind much more serious, morally speaking. Since I haven’t yet seen anyone else online set out the evidence within the documents that militate against taking the documents at face value, it seemed worthwhile for me to try to do that here.

I’m actually only going to be discussing one document in detail, the one containing the allegation that King witnessed and encouraged rape. Note that the beginning and end of the document are redacted; the earliest legible page is numbered 8 in its handwritten pagination (page 15, in NARA’s pagination of the PDF), and the last legible page is numbered 33 (page 39, in NARA’s pagination). From this point forward, for convenience, I’m going to cite only NARA’s page numbers.

Take a look for yourself; a couple of observations are easy to make. First, this document was a group effort. Even the typing seems to have been done on more than one typewriter. On page 17, for example, the paragraph beginning “In 1964, he gave another friend several hundred dollars . . .” has different margins than the rest of the page and is in italics. It also looks to me as though page 22 was typed on a different machine from the preceding pages, though I’m not that good at recognizing typescripts, and I might be misreading the distortion of photocopying.

More pertinent for our purposes, note that the document is annotated in two distinctive styles of handwriting. On pages 15 to 22, the handwriting of these annotations is a loopy cursive. Here’s a sample:

NARA document 32989551 page 16

In this screenshot, taken from page 16, the handwritten portion reads, “In an argument with Mrs Dolores Evans in New York one night he threatened to commit suicide.” For reference’s sake, let’s name the author of these cursive annotations Loopy.

On page 22, another style handwriting appears: printed letters, in a darker ink. Here’s a sample:

NARA document 32989551 page 27

This screenshot is from page 27. The handwritten additions include the letter “D,” the words “another Negro,” and the label “Sensitive Foreign Intelligence Operation—ONGOING.” Let’s give the author of these hand-printed annotations the name Blocky. And then let’s forget about him, because he’s not really germane to our argument.

A further observation: In the typescript, between pages 15 and 21, references are intermittently provided within parentheses to what seem to be the sources of particular claims. For example, on page 20, the claim that an aide “later confided to a friend that King’s group was running naked, drunk white prostitutes up and down the halls of the hotel” is sourced to “NY airtel, 12/17/64, re Martin Luther King.” In the next paragraph, there’s a claim that “at least five other men in King’s party made the same inquiry, being particularly interested in learning where the ‘Norwegian girls’ could be found,” and this is sourced to “100-106670-825,” which seems to correspond to a numbering system for documents used internally by the FBI.

What can we infer from this group of (rather obvious) observations? It would be reasonable to guess that Loopy and Blocky are different people, though it’s possible that they’re one person with two different handwriting styles. Either of them might also have been one of the typists of the document they annotated, although, again, it seems likelier that neither of them was. In any case, even if one of the annotators was also one of the typists, it’s safe to say that the handwritten annotations were made after the typing. The annotator was returning to the typed document, with an intention to change it. And by means of a few more observations, we will be able to infer something about that intention.

It’s Loopy that we’re particularly interested in, since he’s the one who made the explosive allegation against King. Here’s the relevant passage, which spans pages 17 and 18 in NARA’s pagination:

NARA document 32989551 pages 17-18

The underlying typescript of this passage reads as follows:

Willard Hotel Episode

On January 5, 1964, King and several SCLC officials checked into the Willard Hotel in Washington, D. C. In a room nearby was a Baptist minister from Baltimore, Maryland, who had brought to Washington several women “parishioners” of his church. The group met in his room and discussed which women among the parishioners would be suitable for natural or unnatural sex acts. When one of the women protested that she did not approve of this, the Baptist minister immediately and forcibly raped her. (100-3-116-762)

To the heading “Willard Hotel Episode,” Loopy has added the annotation “more on this.” Underneath the phrase “a Baptist minister from Baltimore,” Loopy has written “his name.” Loopy has written “name” again, above a second instance of the phrase “Baptist minister” later in the paragraph. Another addition of Loopy’s specifies that it’s “unnatural sex acts” that one of the women in the room disapproves of; the way the original typescript reads, it’s possible to think she disapproved of sorting the women by sex act. And then at the close of the paragraph, Loopy adds the incriminating sentence about the alleged rape: “King looked on laughed and offered advise” [sic].

Just from Loopy’s intervention in this paragraph alone, a couple of inferences seem justifiable. First, Loopy seems to be revising the underlying typescript with an eye to presenting the evidence it contains to a new audience, and for that purpose, he wants more details added to it about the Willard Hotel episode. Second, either those details aren’t available to Loopy as he’s revising, or they’re not within easy reach; he seems to be deputizing someone else to look the details up and insert them. In his Standpoint article, Garrow identifies the other minister in the room with King as Logan Kearse, which isn’t a long name. If Loopy had had Kearse’s name on the tip of his tongue, or staring at him from an audio transcript, he would probably have just written “Kearse” twice instead of writing “his name” and “name.”

Nor is this the only evidence of Loopy not knowing, or not having ready access to, factual details. The very next paragraph on page 18 concerns a “sex orgy,” and in the margin, Loopy has written “where?” At the bottom of page 19, a note from Loopy directs someone to “set out statement”, i.e., insert a statement that a prostitute gave to the FBI. In the jargon of journalism, Loopy is doing a top edit, not a line edit. In any case, he’s certainly not a writer doing his own revision. He isn’t looking at the sources; he’s directing someone else to go back to them. It’s simply not true that, as Garrow wrote in Standpoint, “Without question Sullivan and his aides had both the microphone-transmitted tape-recording, and a subsequent full transcript at hand while they were annotating their existing typescript.” To the contrary, Loopy seems to be editing either from a hazy memory of the intel or from hearsay.

Loopy’s annotations also reveal him to be someone with a heavy slant on King. At the top of page 16, for example, he crosses out the word “assignations” and replaces it with “adulterous sex relations,” which is poor editing from a stylistic point of view, since the phrase “adulterous sex relations” is longer than “assignations” and means more or less the same thing. Loopy seems motivated here by a wish to make King’s conduct sound worse—to remind the reader that King was married when he was having this promiscuous sex. In fact, almost all of Loopy’s additions seem aimed at making King look worse than the typescript already makes him sound. Lower on page 16, below the typescript’s claim that King’s romances had come to the attention of his associates, Loopy adds “and also to the employees of motels and hotels.” On the top of page 17, after the typescript notes that “King once told some SCLC associates that he was wasting his money on sex (100-3-116-762),” Loopy adds,

This is true. for years he has [missing text] on females with whom he has sex relations. They stay at the most expensive hotels he pays their travelling expenses and gives them costly gifts. This comes from funds given to him to help the poor negro.

Unlike most of the claims against King in the typescript, Loopy’s addition here is without detail or sourcing. Which women? Which hotels? Which funds? Loopy doesn’t have the receipts. The tone, moreover, is a little ranty. A little lower on the page, after a description in the typescript of King spending more than $600 on phone calls, Loopy feels compelled to add, “merely to carry on sentimental conversations”. Again, Loopy is contributing tendentiousness rather than detail. His addition doesn’t tell the reader anything new about King and his lover; it merely tells us that Loopy deems the expression of their feelings to be of little worth.

Just by inspection of these pages, in other words, we have good reason to infer that the handwritten annotation alleging that King “looked on laughed and offered advise” to a rapist was added by someone who (1) was at a remove from the facts while he was making his annotations, and (2) had an axe to grind against King. From this internal evidence, therefore, it seems likely to me that the annotation about King looking on at rape and laughing is an embellishment on Loopy’s part, grounded in nothing more than his animus.

One last doubt, about the alleged rape itself. In the typescript, the allegation that Kearse committed rape is sourced to a document with the number 100-3-116-762. (Note that the claim that King once said he was “wasting his money on sex,” on the preceding page, is sourced to the same document.) Garrow has suggested that if a document like 100-3-116-762 was the transcript of an audio recording, it should be more persuasive to historians than the write-up of an interview with an informant would be. Speaking to the Washington Post, Garrow argued that it is reasonable to give more credence to the results of “electronic surveillance” than to reports that came “literally third- or fourth-hand from a human informant.” But if document 100-3-116-762 is based on an audio transcript, rather than on the testimony of a victim or an eyewitness, then there’s another problem. Are we willing to trust that Loopy, or the typist whose work he was revising, was able to distinguish the sound of a rape from the sound of normal sexual excitement? And are we willing to trust either of them to be honest about what he heard? A historian who takes the documentary evidence discovered by Garrow at face value is choosing to rely on the perception, judgment, and moral fiber of a nameless FBI officer of the 1960s, who, among other telltale signs of prudishness, seems to have consistently described oral sex as “unnatural.” Unfortunately for Garrow’s argument, if living with the internet for the past couple of decades has taught us anything, it is a distrust of the notion that it’s possible to reach through electronic surveillance a truth that will not have been distorted by human intention and perception.

From an old journal: My 9/11

2001-09-11 sun photo Caleb Crain

Here’s an entry I made in my journal on 13 September 2001. At the time, Peter and I were living on 11th Street near Fourth Avenue, in Brooklyn. Lota was our black Lab mix, and Nina was my sister’s chihuahua, whom we were dog-sitting. I’m including scans of some photos I took that day as well, which get mentioned in the journal. Hope you can read my handwriting.

2001-09-13p1

2001-09-13p2

2001-09-11-rooftop

2001-09-13p3

2001-09-13p4

2001-09-11-gowanus

2001-09-13p5

2001-09-11-firemen-at-battery-tunnel

2001-09-13p6

2001-09-13p7

2001-09-13p8

I didn’t write more later; I didn’t write any journal entries for the next three months. I don’t remember the rest of September 11 anywhere near as clearly as the part that I wrote down, but I do know that I biked into Manhattan that afternoon with Lydia, a friend of friends who either was, or was about to be, a medical student, and wanted to see if she could volunteer. I took a different camera with me on that ride, and took more photos, including the one of the sun at the top of this post and the ones of Manhattan below.

2001-09-11-brooklyn-bridge

2001-09-11-fruit

2001-09-11-city-hall