Friday, October 1, 2010

Harlem Nocturne

2078 Fifth Avenue (inspired by the legend of the Collyer brothers) – Cardboard photo box; antiqued and stained newspaper clippings; wooden dollhouse windows with acrylic panes; LED light; desiccated orange peels; miniature chair; silver wire; genuine desiccated beetle; rusted nails; genuine Model T Ford sparkplug; altered art photographs of the inside of the Collyer Mansion, 1947

It was something that could have, should have, come only from the pen of O. Henry—the master American storyteller, celebrated for his mordant wit, his sardonic wordplay, his dexterity at always producing a surprise ending, one with a twist, a real kicker; like the yarn about the two crooks who abduct a boy of ten and hold him for ransom, until their victim turns out to be so obnoxious that the kidnappers actually pay the boy’s family to take him back.

Yeah, that sort of thing…

And here it was, in real life.

New York City, March, 1947.

Something sure stunk at 2078 Fifth Avenue. The cops knew the address well, that huge, rotting four-story brownstone at the corner of 128th Street. It had been an eyesore for years—filthy, rundown, its fa├žade a patchwork of broken, boarded-up windows. God only knew what it looked like on the inside!

And the owners were just as peculiar.

A pair of brothers—Homer and Langley Collyer, scions of a once prominent Manhattan physician and his wife. Both of them wealthy, snooty, and well…just plain odd. Homer had a degree in admiralty law from Columbia, one that was never put to much use, especially since he was slowly going blind, and Langley…Langley let his hair grow long, played concert-level piano and tinkered and collected—anything and everything.

After both their parents died in the 1920s, that massive strongbox of a home became theirs and theirs alone, and Langley’s collecting went from benign quirk to all-out obsession. With Homer ensconced quietly, and evidently contently, in his room, Langley took to the streets, roaming the deserted city thoroughfares after dark, dressed in strange Victorian garb, amassing trash along the way, like a bee attracting pollen. He ferreted his findings back and into his hive.

Though moneyed, the Collyers lived off the scraps Langley scrounged from garbage bins in the back of local restaurants. The electricity and gas were disconnected owing to overdue bills, the telephone was cut off, and the banks threatened to foreclose as mortgage payment after mortgage payment was ignored. Income taxes were scoffed at—why pay income tax if we have no income, Langley reasoned. It was said they paid for nothing. Nothing except the daily newspapers—they had a subscription to every one published in every borough—and the oranges. Yup, oranges. It seems Langley was convinced that if his older brother ate enough of them, a hundred a week was the regimen, his eyesight would return and he’d want to read all those newspapers, to catch up on what he missed. But, sadly, Homer’s vision didn’t come back…and the combination of a poor diet and a lack of adequate activity hardened his joints. So blind and wracked by rheumatism, the elder of the Collyers took to his reading chair and gradually desiccated.

Gossip was rife, tongues wagged. Since no one saw them—or at least one of them—until after nightfall, the Collyers were soon christened the “ghosty men” by their astonished, incredulous, and oftentimes irritated, neighbors. Rumor claimed the house was full of treasure, priceless jewels and masterpieces of art. Burglars began sniffing around, and the manse’s windows were prime targets for any young hooligan with a rock in his fist. Such attacks exacerbated the brothers’ anxiety, fueled their paranoia, so the front door was barred, the windows shuttered behind plywood and iron grillwork; the world was shut out…

…and 2078 Fifth Avenue became a tomb.

Literally.

That brings us back to the stink. Back to the morning of March 21, 1947, when the telephone rang at the 122nd Police Precinct, and an anonymous tipster claimed there was a dead body in the crumbling brownstone at Fifth and 128th. Officers went to investigate and found the address all but hermetically sealed. The only way in was through the roof. Whether the cops drew straws or flipped a coin for the dirty job isn’t known, but patrolman William Barker lost, and made his descent.

What should have been nothing more than a ten to fifteen minute search, lasted nearly an hour. The police were getting worried. Then Barker’s head popped out of the rabbit hole, his face pale, his eyes wide.

And the story he had to tell about his journey to Wonderland…well, that’s still talked about to this day.

To start off small, within there were cardboard boxes, some lashed together with rope; folding beds and chairs; the frame of a baby carriage, half of a sewing machine; farming tools; collections of disintegrating umbrellas bunched in twine; parts of a wine press. Book towers teetered. And everywhere, newspapers—decades worth, morning edition and evening edition—stacked along the walls, from floor to ceiling, creating a labyrinth, where, in some areas, it was necessary to crawl on hands and knees through tunnels of them just to reach the next room, many of them booby-trapped against intruders. Touch a trip wire and an avalanche of heavy suitcases crammed full of junk would squash and flatten.

A partial inventory of accumulation: rusted bicycles; old food; potato peelers; gas chandeliers; bowling balls; camera equipment; the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage; a sawhorse; three dressmaking dummies; painted portraits of long-forgotten ancestors; pinup girl photos; Mrs. Collyer's hope chests; rusty bed springs; a kerosene stove; a child's chair (the brothers were lifelong bachelors and childless, what a shock!); more than twenty-five thousand books; human organs pickled in jars (from their doctor/father, one hopes); eight live cats; threadbare European tapestries; hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric; fourteen pianos (both grand and upright); a clavichord; two pipe organs; banjos; violins; bugles; accordions; a nine-foot-tall mahogany clock with a music box inside; thirteen ornate mantel clocks, one contained a metal bust of a girl whose ears and bodice dripped gold coins; a cache of weapons and ammunition; a horse’s jawbone; two anatomy school skeletons; a broken x-ray machine; a gramophone with records dating from 1898, including “Round Her Neck She Wears a Yeller Ribbon for her Lover Who is Fur, Fur Away” and “Nobody In Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine;” and, of course, those multitudinous bundles of newspapers.

And the chassis of an old Model T Ford, taking pride of place in the dining room. The ol’ tinkerer Langley believed he could generate enough electricity off the motor to light the house.

Didn’t work.

Oh, yeah…and no inventory would be complete without…

Homer’s corpse.

The withered shell that had once been Homer Lusk Collyer was discovered curled up in his favorite reading chair, dead as a doornail, the carpet surrounding littered with moldering orange peels. He’d starved to death.

But where was Langley?

Had he killed Homer and fled?

Had he finally gone totally bonkers and was now a homicidal lunatic wandering New York City’s streets?

An all-points bulletin was issued for his capture. A nationwide manhunt followed and although some Langley look-alikes were detained, the genuine still eluded.

But the haunted mansion at 2078 Fifth Avenue had one final secret to reveal.

Langley.

His rat-gnawed body was found crushed beneath a pile of debris. He was wearing a bathrobe, three jackets and four pairs of trousers. Around his neck as a scarf was a white onion sack fastened with a safety pin.

He had been done in by one of his own booby-traps while bringing food to his brother.

That’s the O. Henry ending I was talking about.

Ultimately, over one-hundred and thirty tons of hoarded items were removed from 2078 Fifth Avenue. The brownstone, neglected and deteriorating, was deemed a hazard to life and limb and demolished. A small park is located there now—the Collyer Brothers Park.

And what of the brothers themselves?

They were interred, side by side, in the family plot at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Their graves remain unmarked.

The Collyer brothers have finally succeeded in shutting out the world.

“Scot D. Ryersson’s ‘2078 Fifth Avenue’ is both a meditation on the Collyer brothers, in its careful arrangement of their symbols and sigils into a new whole, and also, in its making, a recreation of the impulses that led to their deaths, for saving the newspaper clippings and orange peels becomes its own kind of hoarding, and his confining of these artifacts in this box his own way of demarcating what is his from that which is not.

And now what, and what next? I cannot help but wonder: What does it mean for the artist, if the only way to keep his art is to never again set these gathered objects free? What does it cost to take from the world and make for oneself a new one, as each worthy work of art must be?

After all, Homer and Langley Collyer did nothing more than this, and their act was still heavy enough to bury them beneath its weight.”

--Matt Bell, author of
How They Were Found, which includes the novella “The Collectors,” based on the lives of Homer and Langley Collyer




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