Our Local Hall of Fame: A Splendidly Willful Crew

New York Characters , by Gillian Zoe Segal. W.W. Norton, 147 pages, $22.95.

It’s all about what Dr. Zizmor and Bobby Short and the Real Kramer have in common-but before that, it’s about Mister Clean. Mister Clean was a guy on our street in Boerum Hill when I was growing up; he lived in a rooming house, one of several still functioning on the block in the early 70′s. The rooming houses were presumably established when the neighborhood was dominated by steamfitters and longshoremen working on the docks at the end of Atlantic Avenue, and by the Mohawk Indians who built skyscrapers and had chosen this part of Brooklyn to live in, but they were now mostly filled with Puerto Rican bachelors, and Puerto Rican drunks. Mister Clean wore a porkpie hat and had a chipper, vibrant style of hailing his friends on the block. He was legendary for his love of his car-this likely was the source of his name, though I never heard it explained-which was a fancy Dodge Dart with colored side panels, if I remember it right. Mister Clean would clean and polish the car: the hood, the hubcaps, the windshield. And when it was too clean to clean again, he’d stand outside or sit on the stoop and regard it pridefully: Mister Clean’s car. It was weird that he even had a car. Certainly nobody else on the block cleaned theirs. Mister Clean was everybody’s eccentric, everybody’s neighborhood star, but he was a little more mine than anyone else’s after I cracked his windshield with a thrown baseball. Though I was terrified, I confessed to my parents. When my father and I went together to apologize, and to offer to pay for a replacement, Mister Clean not only forgave-he immediately began taking my brother and me to Yankee games. To the bleachers. He’d make us wait by a pillar eating hot dogs while he rushed across to the bars under the subway to place bets, then we’d sit and root for Mickey Rivers and Reggie Jackson. That we were Met fans, Mister Clean couldn’t seem to be made to understand. He spoke little English. Maybe he’d never even understood that I’d ruined his windshield, only that my father was trying to tell him something about baseball.

Even if Mister Clean were still out there polishing, he’d be a little too local (and too outer-borough) for photographer Gillian Zoe Segal’s sterling little collection of New York Characters , but the point of her book encompasses and implies Mister Clean’s meaning: New York is bloated full of local fame. More than that, in a city founded on a make it here, make it anywhere premise and on an ethos of taking celebrity for granted, local fame often dwells on an uninterrupted continuum with the shrug-worthy, Hollywood Squares celebrity junk-stratum, where 15 minutes is being stretched to forever all over the place. Sure, everybody knows that guy, he’s the one who used to-whatever. My brother and I wouldn’t have been that shocked to see Mister Clean show up on Real People , or The Gong Show .

What makes this book of photograph-and-blurb portraits brilliant is the insight that crushes together Spike Lee, Ed Koch, Yogi Berra, George Plimpton, Comden and Green and the aforementioned Bobby Short with figures like the Oldest Cabbie, Sister Marlane (the Bird Lady), Radio Man, the President of the Polar Bear Club and the aforementioned Real Kramer. Not to mention Dr. Z. Sure, those in the former group once could (and maybe still can) play Peoria, but basically they’re our own loathed and beloved eccentrics as much as the latter group. By noting that New Yorkers hold a certain clan of luminaries in that special combination of “to their bosom” and “at arm’s length” which characterizes a familial or neighborly relationship, Ms. Segal has, seemingly effortlessly, described a rare and elusive aspect of New York City culture. And the proof, the clincher, is in the middle-range figures she also rounds up. Quick, to which camp belongs Al Goldstein? Speed Levitch? Don Imus? Elaine Kaufman? Henry Stern? In another part of the country, would all these figures be only local flakes or charmers-odd uncles or aunts who, when they came for the holidays, could stir up an entire block or neighborhood? Does anyone outside the city really know the name Ron Kuby? Patrick McMullan? Poet-O? Gotcha.

Mr. Plimpton, who appears in this volume and also provided a foreword, squirms wonderfully at seeing himself put “jowl to jowl … with the likes of David Blaine, who not long ago enclosed himself in a huge block of ice and put himself on display in Times Square.” But George, what did you do except enclose yourself in a huge block of literary celebrity-and a Detroit Lions uniform? The splendid willfulness that wrenched them into the public eye is what links Lauren Ezersky, Curtis Sliwa, John MacEnroe and the Egg Cake Lady (stringing these names together produces poetry every time). That’s true even if, like subway dermatologist Dr. Zizmor, they claim they were only trying to make a buck. Dr. Zizmor explains that he designs those hideous ads himself-a clear, if unconscious, confession of the lust for fame. He also mentions that he treats a lot of cheating husbands who fear they’ve picked up sexually transmitted diseases, which puts a new spin on all those rainbows and “before” and “after” photos in his ads. Which, being a glimpse of the dark side, reminds me of who was, for me, the only outstanding missing piece in the book (apart from, of course, Mister Clean). Ms. Segal explains in her afterword that Woody Allen shined her on, and that she feuded with the Soup Nazi, but I didn’t really miss that overexposed pair. No, my candidate is perfectly typical of the Ed Koch model, the New Yorker who comes home to local prominence after a brief shot into the wider stratosphere: Where’s Bernhard Goetz?

Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn (Vintage) won the National Book Critic Circle Award in 1999.