Sunday, July 21, 2013

IN MEMORIAM: Vic Cabillis (December 9, 1926--July 21, 2013)

Vic Cabillis, On Third Avenue, Bronx, NY, February 2013
Vic at his usual haunt, checking out the neighborhood; hard to keep a good man down.

At 8:13 am this morning, the Bronx lost one of its true, unsung heroes, when Vic Cabillis died of pneumonia in the apartment he kept directly above his sign shop on Third Avenue.  Vic was 86 years old, a lover of the Bronx, and one who knew the Borough intimately, always enjoyed talking about it and recounting its past in great specificity to anybody interested.

Vic Cabillis, On City Island, Bronx, NY, March 2010
As part of our introduction to the Bronx, Vic drove us out to see City Island for our first time.

Vic was also loved by the people of the South Bronx and the area known as Mott Haven.  Some even referred to him as “King of the Bronx,” or “the Prince of Mott Haven;” many others simply knew him as “Vic the Sign Man.”  Everybody in the neighborhood knew who he was and looked out for him, and he, in turn, was always prepared with extra cash to give handouts to his more needy neighbors.   Locals, some of whom lived in affordable housing complexes across Third Avenue from his shop, took it upon themselves to guard him, his property, and any visiting friends and family. In this was the sign of a true neighborhood, which he helped to nurture.

Vic Cabillis, On his office phone, Bronx, NY, 2011
A typical pose: phone to ear (he loved to talk, whether with clients or friends), an open-faced smile, and the ubiquitous Yankee cap (of which he had at least one for every day).

Vic purchased Elite Signs, his business, at the age of 22, and enjoyed a loyal and varied customer base ranging from 7-Up, Lucky Strike, and Esso, to Everlast boxing equipment, Icon Parking, and Yankee Stadium.  He worked well onto his eighties, and even last year he still occasionally went out on jobs.  I can recall not so long ago finding him on the empty third floor of his building working on a very large and long sign for Yankee Stadium.  It stretched across the entire floor.  Vic took his craft seriously and practiced it right up to the end of his life.

Vic Cabillis, Taking care of business while on the street, 3rd. Avenue, Bronx, NY, 2011

Vic’s interest in signs began when a lettering course at Textile High caught his fancy.  Before this, he had attended schools in Harlem, PS 62 and then Thomas Knowles Junior High for Boys (PS 52) in the Bronx.   After High School, he served in the US Navy.  In 1945, after his discharge, he returned to the Bronx and began working in the sign business.

Vic Cabillis, Catching up on the local news, 3rd. Avenue, Bronx, NY, February 2013

Vic was very proud of his family background and the fact that he was a Greek Jew (also known as Romaniotes). Vic’s parents came from Janina, Greece, having emigrated separately in the late ‘teens-early twenties of the 20th century. His father, Morris David Cabillis (originally Kabelli), had run away from home, taken a boat to Canada, and from there illegally made his way to New York City. In order to become a legal citizen, he enlisted in the US Army, became a naturalized citizen on March 10, 1920, and was honorably discharged by the Army in September of that year. His naturalization certificate actually lists him as Albanian, which was likely the case, since Janina, Greece and what is Albania today were an autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire throughout the 19th century, and the borders were quite fluid.

Vic’s mother was born Eva Eliazer and came to the United States at the age of fourteen, when her older brother was not able to use the (already purchased) steamer ticket because of the war. A grand uncle met her at Ellis Island and took her into his family, where she found herself in the position of a servant in charge of his seven children.

Eva and Morris met at a Greek dance and, as is so often said, “the rest is history,” or at least a prototypical history of immigrant life in America.   Vic and his sister, Shirlee, are typical of the productive, assimilated children of immigrant parents.

Vic Cabillis & Shirlee Paganetti, Bronx, NY, late 2011
Shirlee (up from Florida for a visit) and Vic stop by our place around the corner for a chat.

Apparently, the one aspect of American life that Vic didn’t embrace was voting in elections.  He always claimed that both parties were the same and he took no interest in politics. From my perspective as a progressive and liberal, that probably was good, because Vic’s social comments usually sounded uncomfortably close to those of today’s right-wing Republicans.

I think that Vic took pleasure in being politically incorrect. He would give voice to old, stale biases in regard to Hispanic and Black people, even as he hired them, trained them, and stayed loyal to them in his business. I came to the conclusion that everyone understood that what he said was quite separate from what he actually did, and that he and his workers shared a mutual respect for each other.

Vic Cabillis and his trusted friend, David, Bronx, NY, December 2012
Vic was losing energy, but mustered himself for a journey to Lehman College to see a show of paintings of the Bronx by William P. Folchi.

Equally "incorrect" was the solitary way Vic addressed every woman, no matter how well he knew her: “babe.”  I’m sure that he knew some of them by name.  Still, all were simply “babe.”  But if “babe” might be seen as a denial of a woman’s individuality by some,  I would prefer that it be understood as his moniker of respect.   After all, can a woman be too chagrined at being called a “babe?”

Vic Cabillis & Virginia, Bronx, NY, January 2013
Virginia (one of the many "babes") is one of Vic's in-house caretakers for his last half-year on a visit to our place.

Besides running Elite Signs, Vic also liked to paint pictures. Using photographs or plates from books on art, Vic copied the works of recognized artists, mainly those from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, whose work was representational.  Here are some examples.

Vic Cabillis, Painting the Brooklyn Bridge, Bronx, NY, January 2013
In the background is Vic's grand-niece, Ariana, who was using his third floor for a play rehearsal.

Vic Cabillis, Painting Van Gogh's, Bronx, NY, February 2013

Vic Cabillis, Painting after Vermeer's Milkmaid

Vic Cabillis, Painting after Constable

Vic Cabillis, Painting after Matisse

My friendship with Vic began when I moved to the Bronx and around the corner from Elite Signs. Andrea and I would invite him over for dinner, and he would regale us with stories. One in particular that remains vivid is his recollection of a trip to the New York World’s Fair of 1939 with two pals, Louis and Murray. Once on the fairgrounds, Vic recalled, “we ran around like cockroaches.” 

I asked him what he remembered most at the fair, and he told me the GM Pavilion, for which they had to “wait an hour or two” to get in.  I'm sure that was the case, because this was the most interesting and innovative pavilion of the fair.  Still, he was short on specifics.  However, Vic elaborated at great lengths on their mode of transportation from the Bronx to the fair in Queens, using  old fashioned clip-on roller skates.  By the time they arrived at 10:00 am, when the gates opened, the cheap, metal wheels of their skates had been ground down and resembled irregular squares more than circles.  When they were finally escorted off the grounds, well after closing (Vic said 2:00 a.m., a likely exaggeration), they had to rely on the help of a policeman who convinced a subway attendant to let these three rascals on a train home.

New York World's Fair, 1939, GM Pavilion, design by Norman Bel Geddes

Vintage, Clip-on roller skates

Vic Cabillis lived a good life and he touched the lives of many other people. I will always remember him, and his stories, and his infectious smile that he still could muster up near the end of his life.

Vic Cabillis, Bronx, NY, 2013

Vic Cabillis, Bronx, NY, 2013

Vic is survived by his sister, Shirlee Paganetti; his son, Marc Cabillis and his two daughters, Jodie Iagnocco and Nori Connell; his grandchildren, Chelsea, Elyssa, Brian, Evania, Cortney, Alex, and Matthew; and many nieces, nephews and cousins. 

Services will be held at the Mount Sinai Chapel on Tuesday, July 23, at 12:45 p.m.  The Sinai Chapels are located at 162-05 Horace Harding Expressway (the service road of the Long Island Expressway) in Fresh Meadows, Queens.

Vic Cabillis, Trying on a headdress made from sneakers by Bronx artist Sean Paul Gallegos, 2012

Sunday, July 14, 2013

THE TEMPEST in Battery Park: a must-see performance

Last week, I attended the New York Classical Theatre's production of Shakespeare's The Tempest in Battery Park.  The production began at 7:00 in the structure known as Castle Clinton--a most fitting venue for this play that deals with shipwrecked visitors to a new island.  Castle Clinton, originally called the West Battery and built between 1808-1811 as a fort to protect Manhattan (by the same architect who designed Gracie Mansion and our City Hall), would abandon its defensive role in 1821 to serve as a place of public entertainment.

Only the first and the final scene take place inside the open-air space of Castle Clinton. For the rest of the play, actors and audience are peripatetic. Instead of set changes, various places in Battery Park serve as the new set, and the audience moves along to create what Stephen Burdman, the artistic director, calls "panoramic theatre."  It's a wonderful experience; the acting is first class; and its a perfect way to introduce children to adult theatre.

Although Stephen Burdman asks the audience not to make any recordings or photographs, I did take some stealth photos with my small, pocket camera. But I shot blind, from the hip, so as not to disturb anyone in the audience and yet managed to get several photographs well-enough focused to provide the following images of the performance.

Manhattan, Battery Park, Castle Clinton, The Audience Gathers for New York Classical Theatre's The Tempest

As we gather in Castle Clinton, our backs to the west and the Hudson River, the lowering sun lights up the buildings of lower Manhattan.  Rising like a jewel in this setting is that square tower in the center with a pyramidal cap--the Standard Oil Building (1921-28)--designed by Thomas Hastings, one of the architects of the earlier New York Public Library.

Manhattan, Battery Park, Ariel and the Sleeping Alonso, New York Classical Theatre's The Tempest

The plot thickens, as Sebastian and Antonio discuss killing the magically-drugged Alonso and Gonzalo (asleep on another bench just to the right).  This Ariel (one of three, as you will soon see) is played by Kelly Gibson; Alonso is played by Clay Storseth.

Manhattan, Battery Park, Miranda and Ferdinand, New York Classical Theatre's The Tempest

Here Miranda, played by Hannah Kahn, realizes that the handsome castaway, Ferdinand (son of Alonso, the King of Naples), is as much in love with her as she with him. Ferdinand is played by Daniel Patrick Smith. Hidden behind the tree and watching the events that he has set into motion is Prospero.

Manhattan, Battery Park, Caliban, New York Classical Theatre's The Tempest

Caliban, wonderfully played by Brendan McMahon, hugs a tree as he anticipates getting the island back for himself through his plot with the drunken, castaway servants, Stephano and Trinculo.

Manhattan, Battery Park, Ariel, New York Classical Theatre's The Tempest

Here are the three Ariels, waiting for the right moment to haunt Caliban and his scheming partners.  They are Rin Allen, Kelly Gibson, and Molly Densmore.

Manhattan, Battery Park, Prospero, New York Classical Theatre's The Tempest

The scene has now moved to that part of the Battery that features the East Coast War Memorial, which includes four nineteen foot high pylons inscribed with the names of those who lost their lives in the Atlantic Ocean during WWII.  Note the Statue of Liberty in the far distance.

Here, Prospero, played by John Michalski, uses a pylon as center stage right, remaining hidden but watching the events just prior to the betrothal masque with Miranda and Ferdinand. This would be part of Act IV in a normal production.

Manhattan, Battery Park, Sunset over New Jersey and the Hudson

As we walk back to Castle Clinton for Act V and the Epilogue, we are treated to this wonderful sunset and the silhouettes of some of the buildings of Jersey City.

Manhattan, Battery Park, Castle Clinton, The Audience Gathers for Act V, for New York Classical Theatre's The Tempest

Manhattan, Battery Park, Castle Clinton, Alonso looks on as Prospero welcomes Gonzalo, New York Classical Theatre's The Tempest

New York Classical Theatre will continue performances of Shakespeare's The Tempest July 16-21, 23-28, and July 30-August 4.  All performances begin at 7:00 pm.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

FreshDirect & the Bronx: Make Your Voice Heard Today

South Bronx Unite is asking everyone who opposes the giveaway of valuable waterfront land to FreshDirect to come to the Community Board 1 offices, located at 3024 3rd Avenue at 5:30 today--Wednesday, July 10.  The focus of this meeting will be FreshDirect’s request to be granted a land use modification for the property.  Here is the website of South Bronx Unite, where one can find its positions and other information.

New York City, City Hall, Protest against FreshDirect, November 14, 2012

On November 14 of last year (2012), I happened to be in the vicinity of City Hall and took some photographs of a gathering of activists who were calling for the boycott of FreshDirect. Here we can see two people holding up a sign while standing on the steps leading up to the elegant Ionic portico of City Hall. Designed by the architectural team of Mangin and McComb, this classical gem was built in 1811 and stands--fittingly--as the oldest city hall in the United States that continues to function as a center for government.

The issue in regard to FreshDirect, the on-line grocer which delivers directly to residences or offices, is that it is moving its distribution center from Queens to a new site in the Bronx. However, Bronx residents and civic organizations were given no input into the process.  In essence, FreshDirect had worked out a sweetheart deal with Albany and the office of the Mayor of New York in which it will receive around $130 million in public money (through tax exemptions and through direct subsidies).

I think that the whole issue of urban governments subsidizing private, for-profit corporations ought to be reassessed, whether it be a food distribution center or a sports stadium. And in this case, when New York City desperately needs so many other things, why is it supporting what Sarah Jaffe remarks is “a grocery delivery service that is notorious for underpaying its workers, has faced multiple accusations of discrimination and has been accused of using all sorts of shady tactics to block its workers from joining a union?”

Besides subsidies that seem unfair, the closed process which led to them also lacked the transparency that we have come to expect in our democracy.  Nevertheless, the issues surrounding FreshDirect and New York City are hardly black-and-white.  For anyone interested in them, I would suggest the article by Sarah Jaffe, in the March 4, 2012 issue of AlterNet, “How FreshDirect Delivers Misery Along With Your Groceries--And How Workers and the Community are Fighting Back;” the article by Michael Powell in the February 20, 2012 issue of the New York Times, “In Bronx, FreshDirect and Land of Great Promises;” the article by Dennis Slatery in the June 3, 2013 issue of the New York Daily News, “Judge hands Fresh Direct a victory, paving way for grocer’s move to the South Bronx;” and the article by Patrick Wall in the November 14, 2012 issue of DNAinfo New York, “Gristedes Owner and Other Grocers Join Fight vs. FreshDirect's Subsidies.”

Meanwhile, here are a few more photos of some of the people who spoke out against FreshDirect on that chilly, November day last year.

New York City, City Hall, Protest against FreshDirect, Bettina Damiani, November 14, 2012
Bettina Damiani, of the advocacy group, Good Jobs New York, was certain that residents in the South Bronx, had they been consulted, would have rejected this sweetheart deal.  She remarked that “the future of economic development must be in rebuilding our city, rebuilding infrastructure after Hurricane Sandy” and not in subsidizing specific businesses.

New York City, City Hall, Protest against FreshDirect, Irene Prestigiacomo, November 14, 2012
Irene Prestigiacomo, a business owner from Willets Point, Queens, worried about the imbalance and unfairness of such subsidies and their effect on the local groceries and bodegas of the South Bronx. Seeing an issue of socio-economic injustice, she noted that “they victimize businesses in small neighborhoods like my own to the benefit of the well-connected.”

New York City, City Hall, Protest against FreshDirect, Letitia James, November 14, 2012
In a similar vein, Councilwoman Letitia James of Brooklyn stated, “I’m concerned that grocery stores all over the city are suffering,” and then added, “When you give one entity unfair advantage over others, there is something wrong with the equation.”

New York City, City Hall, Protest against FreshDirect, Mychal Johnson, November 14, 2012
Mychal Johnson is one of the major advocates for the South Bronx and a member of South Bronx Unite. He also was a  member of  Community Board 1, until Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. refused to reappoint him because of his active position against FreshDirect.

It was an e-mail from Mychal yesterday that alerted me to today's meeting at 3024 3rd. Avenue in the Bronx.  Mychal will be at the Community Board offices today at 5:30, simply in the capacity of a concerned citizen.  So will I, and I invite anyone else who is interested in this issue to join us.