Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Another New Word
'The Knick' is short for The Knickerbocker, a fictional hospital in downtown New York City at around the turn-of-the century. The turn that saw the 1800s become the modern 1900s. The postcard at the right is a somewhat bright looking version of how the Knickerbocker might look from the outside.
The main character is a drug addicted surgeon played by Clive Owen. But there are other characters, of course.
To me, the building is as much a character as the actors. The gas lighting, candle lighting, and emerging electrical lighting add as much to the atmosphere as the solid wooden floors that echo the footsteps of the staff.
In the early 60s I remember delivering flowers to a hospital that looked something like the Knickerbocker. It was uptown, not downtown, and was Women's Hospital I believe, 109th Street or so. It was set back from a stone wall, somewhat like the Knickerbocker is set back from iron railings and a courtyard, of sorts.
The Knickerbocker's hospital administrator is a fellow named Herman Barrow, and is probably like anyone in a position of trust these days who is in a financial bind. He has put his hands in the cookie jar big time and is trying like hell to change his fortune for having done so.
He has misappropriated hospital funds to invest in the stock market, only to see the promised sure thing evaporate in the "drop of '98." That's 1898, by the way. He's into a loan shark, Bunky Collier, as unsavory a character as there ever was. The guy is Fagin and Bill Sykes rolled into one.
If getting money out of people is like pulling teeth, and the person has no money to be gotten from, well then, a tooth will do until the currency comes forward. Pliers. Hold the Novocaine.
Barrow's made deals with the electrical contractors so that he can skim off the top: a kickback that kicks back, as it were. Thus, Mr. Barrow is ripe for opportunities to try and get the money back into the hospital funds before being discovered. Barrow is in deep, deep do-do with Collier.
Thus, when a Roundsman, as a NYC patrolman was called then, named Phinny Sears approaches Barrow with an opportunity to make some money indirectly from the skin trade, he turns a listening ear toward the enterprising young man.
Bunky Collier is organized crime himself, as we would know it today. He's at least a loan shark, and a runner of several of the city's whorehouses. The young Roundsman has seen Barrow go in and out of one of Mr. Collier's joints at early hours, so he rightly suspects Collier is known to Barrow. Phinny is looking for an introduction so that he might pitch a proposition to Collier.
He gains his introduction to see Collier and his pitch is this: Being a Roundsman in the Tenderloin District (read the area that became Times Square, or thereabouts) he can supply any number of women he arrests for soliciting as candidates for the more genteel occupation of plying their trade in a house run by Collier. For this, he'll take some renumeration. And so will Barrow, for getting the ball rolling, so to speak. A finder's fee, if you will. There have always been lobbyists.
Bunky's interest is aroused, and even more so when two candidates are waiting outside his doorway ready for orientation. Even in the dim lighting, it is possible to see that one is white and the other black. "I don't normally keep coons," he shouts. "But you have a nice figure. If a customer asks, tell them you're an octoroon." A what? Replay through the DVR and a flick of the close captioning tells me yes, "octoroon."
Dictionary please. Turns out octoroon is "a person having one-eighth black blood; the offspring of a quadroon and a white person." I get it. A light-skinned black whose ancestry is not all black; in fact, fairly diluted by inter-marriage with a white person.
In one of those Ken Burns documentaries on jazz, there was some time spent on 'The Cotton Club' in NYC's Harlem in its heyday. All the entertainers were black, and all the patrons were white. It was controlled by Frank Costello, the more refined Bunky Collier of the era.
A great deal of popular music came out of the Cotton Club, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, to name just a very few. I used to see Cab Calloway in the clubhouse at Belmont, standing just outside the binocular rental stand. He was tall, well dressed, and looked like he was ready to dance. And when an old-timer passed by and recognized him and said "hi-de-hi-de-ho." Cab acknowledged the lyrical greeting and almost started to dance. I think his mind wanted to, but his body pretty much said not now, not anymore.
In the Ken Burns documentary, one of performers told of the criteria for getting accepted to be a black dancer at the Cotton Club. The paper bag test. If your skin was no darker than a brown paper bag, you had a chance. If it was darker, fuhgetaboutit.
I suppose if the Cotton Club were to advertise, they might have said, "Only octoroons need apply."