And Once Again, NYC Drops the Ball

In 1907, the city of New York banned the use of fireworks in Times Square. This was particularly disappointing to New York Times owner Adolph Ochs, who for three years had been responsible for one of the city’s biggest parties celebrating the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

Super pretty, but if launched from Times Square, admittedly maybe not the safest way to celebrate.
By Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0,

When the Times moved into its new, impressively tall, office building in Longacre Square in 1904 and then successfully lobbied the city to rename the square in its honor, Ochs was in the mood to celebrate. He decided New Year’s Eve was a good time to do it and set about designing a terribly chilly street fair that culminated in a firework display and a swell of noisemakers and cheers at the stroke of midnight.

The party was a success, attracting more than 200,000 crazy people who didn’t mind freezing their toes off, and became a highly anticipated annual event in the city. So, when New York said no to the fireworks, Ochs wasn’t ready to give up. Instead, he got creative and reached back into history for a new tradition.

What he found, with the help of his chief electrician Walter Palmer, was a time-ball that had been installed in 1833 on top of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. The time-ball dropped at precisely one o’clock every afternoon and served as a tool by which ship captains could set their chronometers.

Adolph Ochs decided that what his party needed was a fancy time-ball to mark the precise beginning of the new year so that everyone could count down the last seconds and share the first kiss of the new year with someone special, or with whomever happened to be handy.

He recruited electrician and metalworker Jacob Starr and his company Artkraft Strauss to design a ball made of wood and iron and lighted by one hundred incandescent light bulbs. At only five feet in diameter, this ball weighed a mere seven hundred pounds and was hoisted on a seventy-foot flag pole by a thick rope and six men.

The Times outgrew its office space by 1914 and had to make another move, but the newfangled old and kind of weird ball drop tradition in Times Square has continued every year (except two) since that first one in 1907. The ball’s diameter has expanded over the years. It’s gotten a whole lot more Waterford crystal-y and more than five tons heavier. But it has become the world’s most widely recognized symbol for the beginning of a new year.

The only times the ball didn’t drop were 1942 and 1943 when wartime dimouts prohibited the display. But that didn’t stop New Yorkers, and probably quite a few very cold visitors to New York, from gathering and celebrating with a moment of shivery silence followed by the ringing of chimes.

This view might be the only thing I’d find worse than being packed into the Times Square crowd on a cold New Year’s Eve. By Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0,

Because when it’s important, the celebration goes on, even when it looks a little different. Sometimes people just discover that quieter celebrations will serve and other times strange and beautiful new traditions are born.

Much of the world, including New York City, is facing a lot of restrictions and challenges coming into the celebration today of the end of a year that has turned out to be pretty difficult to navigate and the beginning of a new year that we sure are hoping might turn out to be a little bit easier.

I imagine most of us will be engaging in somewhat subdued celebrations, maybe at home warm in our pajamas watching a broadcast of the ball in a much emptier Times Square than we’re used to seeing. There will be no public present. It’ll only be the press, a few performers, and some of New York’s first responder families specially invited and socially distanced from one another. There will be no kissing of just any old handy person, and also everyone will probably be even colder than they would be if they were pressed together with a large crowd.

Personally, I like being warm, and I’m not overly fond of crowds anyway so I’m happy this year, like every previous one of my life, not to attend the year’s biggest party in person. But I’m also happy that New York, which has been dropping the ball for a long time, is finding a way to make it work. I’ll probably be watching from my living room where I’ll join in the countdown to the end of 2020 and share my first kiss of 2021 with someone special.

Get a Bicycle. You will certainly not regret it, if you live.

In 1963, a leader for the Ozark Area Council of American Youth Hostels, Dick Leary, decided it would be a fun idea to take a nighttime bike ride through the city of St. Louis. He organized the event for a night in October and set it up to begin at midnight at Union Station. Unfortunately (because most people probably thought he was joking) Leary was the only rider to turn up.

Determined that it was still a good idea (and because I’m guessing he battled insomnia), Leary completed it himself and the next year managed to recruit a few more riders. Word started to get out and by the early 1970s thousands of participants were showing up to complete the ride every year.

Eventually, the event became known as the Moonlight Ramble, the longest-running nighttime cycling event in the world. Organized now through the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the route has changed a few times over the years, but the full course is always around 18 to 20 miles through the heart of downtown St. Louis on the early Sunday morning in August that occurs closest to the full moon.

And despite the addition of a premier riding group (personally I’m not sure how anyone can take themselves all that seriously while sporting glow necklaces snaked through their bicycle spokes), the Ramble is NOT a race (shoe clips are not allowed, nor are they advisable). It’s a ride. All ages, all ability levels, and even all manner of wheeled, human-powered vehicles are welcome. I (typically sound asleep by no later than 10:30) rode in the Ramble for the first time this year, along with my sister and a handful of her cycling buddies, most of whom had participated in the event before.

Okay, so maybe "human-powered" isn't a strict requirement.
Okay, so maybe “human-powered” isn’t a strict requirement.

It was a gorgeous night, under the nearly full moon. The first riders took off from Busch Stadium at 12:10 (after a slight delay for traffic from the preseason Rams game). As there were probably four thousand riders, it took a while to get us all going and even with the best efforts of the St. Louis police department and an army of volunteer ride marshals, it took a bit for the remaining downtown traffic to adjust to the onslaught of bicycles (most drivers smiled to see us; a few were cranky). Once we were really going, though, I have to say it was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had in the city.

Now, I realize that this is generally a (sort of) history blog and that this particular post has thus far come up a little short in that area (unless you’re really easily satisfied and a brief reference to 1963 is enough for you), but I think I can make a case for why it still fits. And to do so, I am going to direct your attention to the expertise of Professor Kenneth Jackson who teaches the History of the City of New York at Columbia University (and who is a much more reliable source of all things history than is yours truly).

Since he began teaching the class in the late 1970s, Professor Jackson has led his students on a nighttime, five-hour bicycle tour from Columbia University to the Brooklyn Promenade. Along the way, Jackson stops at various points of interest to deliver lectures through a bullhorn to the now hundreds of students that come along for the ride.

The professor admits, however, that it is not so much the knowledge shared in his lectures that sticks with the students, but simply the experience of seeing the city in this strangely intimate way, when the moon is bright and the streets are quieter (a little bit anyway, but of course this is New York we’re talking about). One student had this to say about standing in front of Federal Hall at 4:30 AM: “In this sleepy blur I catch myself imagining that I’m there, imagining that [Professor] Jackson is Washington and we’re getting ready to start this new republic.” Another student commented: “This is the first time I feel like I’m really living in the city.”

That's a lot of people "really living" in the city of St. Louis.
That’s a lot of people “really living” in the city of St. Louis.

I get that. I grew up not so far from St. Louis and I have been delighted to be back again, nearer still to what I consider “my city.” Since moving here this past February I have taken my children up in the Arch, explored the Zoo, wandered through the Botanical Garden, enjoyed the theater at both the Fabulous Fox and the outdoor Muni, and been to Busch Stadium to watch the Cardinals play more often than I should admit (I lived two entire baseball seasons in Oregon and apparently distance really does make the heart grow fonder).

After riding the Ramble, all of these different places found a home in that mental map that I always wish I was better at carrying around with me (you may recall that in a previous post I mentioned that my sense of direction is, well, okay so I don’t actually have one). I may not have learned a great deal about the history of my city on this ride, but I did get to know St Louis itself better and be a part of it in a way I never had before.

Bill Emerson said it well in 1967 when he wrote in the Saturday Evening Post: “A bicycle does get you there and more…. And there is always the thin edge of danger to keep you alert and comfortably apprehensive. Dogs become dogs again and snap at your raincoat; potholes become personal. And getting there is all the fun.”

Nighttime cycling is not perfect. The Ramble attracts all kinds of folks, the serious cyclists and the families out to make lasting memories together, but also the rowdies whose frequent beer stops make it best to avoid them.  I also certainly wouldn’t recommend a nighttime ride outside of an organized event. But late night ride events and tours are popping up all over the world (Paris, London, and Moscow are just a few of the cities that I discovered offer similar experiences).

I don't know what this thing is, but it was probably the coolest vehicle in the ride.
I don’t know what this thing is, but it was probably the coolest vehicle in the ride.

But even if you don’t own a bike (often they can be rented), haven’t ridden since you were a kid (you never forget how), or for some reason would prefer sleeping to rambling in the moonlight, consider taking some advice from Mark Twain who once learned to ride one of the old-timey high-wheeled bicycles of his day and had this to say of the experience: “Get a bicycle. You will certainly not regret it, if you live.”

The Magic of Nothing

Ship's Steering Wheel

This past week, Hurricane Sandy met up with her blustery friends from the north and the west to pound the east coast of the US. And as cleanup efforts continue an equally terrifying political storm looms on the horizon as we finally get to elections next week. In the midst of all the turmoil, it’s difficult to know exactly where to turn for a blog topic. So what I have decided to do this week is to offer a moment of stress relief during this relative calm between the storms by writing about nothing.

Specifically, I want to talk about the invention of the “nothing” that occupies the center of a traditional American doughnut. Though versions of doughnuts have been around for centuries and can be found throughout the world, the round doughnut with a hole in the middle has become largely an American tradition since it was introduced, most likely by the Dutch. This is one piece of history on which no one can really be sure, but one story does stand out as the clear fan favorite.

At the age of sixteen, a young Dutchman named Hanson Gregory set out for a life at sea. Like most successful young men, Gregory had a mother who loved him and worried about him, probably would have even struck out into the world with him if she could have, but because a young man needs the space to make his own way she did the next best thing. She cooked up a bunch of his favorite pastries (olykoek or “oily cakes”) and sent them with him. And like great moms everywhere, she also sent along the recipe.

Young Gregory gave his mother’s recipe to his cook and set about his ship duties. Life was good. He was doing his own thing, but could still enjoy a taste of home. Then on June 22, 1847, a terrible storm rose up and Gregory, olykoek in hand, had to make a decision. Either he could grab the ship’s wheel with both hands and fight to keep the boat on a safe course, but sacrifice his tasty snack in the process or he could eat his olykoek and possibly sacrifice the ship and the lives of its crew.

The clever young man did the only thing there was to do. He took his olykoek and plunked it down one of the wheel spokes to secure it. His pastry now safe, he grabbed the wheel with all his might and saved the ship.

Doughnut (Photo credit: Images of Sri Lanka – Sequential Shots)

The early olykoek was pretty much just a ball of dough fried in pork fat which often cooked unevenly, leaving a gooey center. What Hanson Gregory discovered during that fateful storm was that an olykoek with a hole in the middle, tasted better than the original and so he asked his cook to prepare them that way from then on. The doughnut as we know it today was born.

The doughnut really took off in America, though, when, in 1920, New York businessman Adolph Levitt invented the first doughnut-producing machine. His mass produced, holey, pastries received the label “Hit Food of the Century of Progress” at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago. We Americans have loved our doughnuts ever since and the proof is the success of chains such as Dunkin Donuts, launched in 1948 and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, which got its start in 1936, as well as the rise of smaller doughnut boutiques throughout the nation, where one can often sample the best and strangest the doughnut industry has to offer.

On a recent trip to Portland, my sons and I visited one such doughnut shop. Voodoo Doughnuts has been a downtown oddity in Portland, OR (a city known for downtown oddities) since 2003.

Though it is possible to order a traditional glazed doughnut, the more than 90 doughnut varieties on the menu also include some truly bizarre options such as the Tangfastic. Sadly I was not brave enough to try that one, but the varieties we tasted were delicious. The boys chose chocolate-frosted cake doughnuts while I went for the signature voodoo doll doughnut, complete with a pretzel rod pin through the chest and red jelly filling that, like the hole, effectively addresses the concern of the underdone middle.

The doughnuts are good and the atmosphere is charmingly weird (you can get legally married there if, for some reason, you want to), but what I like most about Voodoo Doughnuts is their motto: “The magic is in the Hole!”

And they’re not wrong because if we learn anything from the heroic tale of Hanson Gregory, it is that this “nothing” in the middle of the doughnut, is really quite something. So as we take a deep breath in this semi-calm we have between storms here in the US, let’s just try to remember that after the ship has been righted and the undercooked dough has been scraped off the steering wheel, great things can come from some of life’s biggest storms, even if those great things might seem at first like nothing at all.