2: Finest and Most Rotten (w/ Here Be Monsters)

Released April 10, 2019

JULIA: Hey everyone, Julia here. This episode is a collaboration with the KCRW podcast Here Be Monsters, a show about the unknown. It’s a little different for us, and we’re really excited about it. If you like what you hear, you should go check out Here Be Monsters wherever you listen to our show. Alright. That’s it from me. Here’s Ula.

ULA: This is Going Forward. I’m Ula Kulpa.

ULA: Can I ask you a question? It’s really fast. So, 100 years ago a reporter stood here and asked people if they thought this was a good world. Can I ask you the same thing?

ULA: It’s March 21, 2019. I’m in Lower Manhattan outside 154 Nassau Street. Near the base of the Brooklyn Bridge and City Hall. I’ve been planning to do this for two years, just waiting for the day to come. It started while I was researching another project. I found this column in an issue of the New-York Tribune from March 21st, 1919. It was just a small square, with five quotes in it. A reporter had stood right here at 154 Nassau Street and asked people if they thought it was a good world.

The Tribune reporter was an anonymous writer who went by “The Inquiring Colyumist.” Like columnist. With a y. “Colyumist” was a position newspapers brought in during the first world war.

It filled the gaps when the earlier investigative journalism that criticized the rich and powerful fell out of favor as publishers tried to get the country unified in support of the war effort.  

Colyumists wrote poems and humor, and sometimes profiled people in their city -- all the average goings-on around them. The man-on-the-street style was borne out in columns like this one: five answers to a simple question: Do you think this is a good world?

Two of the answers are similar. A man named Woodman Morrison said, “I don’t. I think it’s one hell of a rotten world.” And A woman named Harriette Underhill said, “I don’t. I think it’s a damned rotten world.”

Their pessimism makes sense. In March 1919, World War 1 had just ended four months earlier. It was the deadliest conflict the world had ever seen, the war to end all wars. There were something like 40 million casualties by the end of it -- both military and civilian, wounded and dead.

At home in New York, a week before the end of the war, the deadliest crash in the history of the subway system took place. At least 93 people were killed when a train took a curve into a tunnel too quickly.

The previous summer, The Spanish Flu became a pandemic, killing at least 30 million people worldwide. New York City actually handled the Spanish Flu better than most. Traffic cops and street sweepers wore masks every day. Immigrants coming in on ships from Europe were quarantined when they were symptomatic. And on a hunch that people sneezing on each other in dark rooms had caused the disease to spread, the health department tried to force closings of dance halls and movie theaters. But people just wouldn’t comply. It must have been too tall of an order. In the midst of all the carnage, they needed to dance and watch a movie and forget. The biggest box office hit that year was a movie called The Miracle Man, about a faith healer.

When I think of these people’s lives, I think of the famous pictures from the end of the war. The ones of Manhattan streets full of people celebrating when the armistice became official at the 11th minute of the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month. When you look at those pictures, you can see that block after block is packed with people. They must have been afraid that while they celebrated, they could catch something that could kill them. But when the pandemic was finally over, the city had only 20,000 deaths from Spanish Flu and pneumonia. Just 20,000 was a win.

The resilience of those New Yorkers: that insistence on seeing movies, going dancing, packing the streets to celebrate - I think it explains the rest of the Colyumist’s quotes, when he asked if it’s a good world. Charlotte Ornstein said, “Sometimes. To-day I like it.” WJ Masters said “I think it’s a hell of a world.” George T. Hughes said, “Yes. Finest world I ever lived in.”

Those answers are the ones that made me want to come back 100 years later, and ask the same question in the same spot. We hear that what we’re living through now is the darkest timeline, that the world is a dumpster fire, that this is the most divided the country has ever been. But if New Yorkers could see it as a hell of a world in 1919. Maybe there’s hope.

SUBWAY: This is Brooklyn Bridge/ City Hall. As you exit, please be careful of the gap between the platform and the train...

ULA: Can I ask you guys a question? So 100 years ago, right here, a New York Tribune writer stood right here and asked people if they thought it was a good world. Can I ask you guys the same question?

MAN 1: I find it to be a good world. People is what makes the world bad, ya know? But as a whole, it’s a great place, right? New York? It’s great. Um I’m from Jamaica initially so living here in the states -- I find the world to be a great place overall. People is what makes it bad. But you know, being alive is great. And being here, a part of it, is great.

MAN 2: I agree, I feel like this world is a good place to live. Bad people in a good world.

ULA: How are you?

MAN 3: Are you interviewing people?

ULA: So 100 years ago, right here, a Tribune reporter stood here and asked people if they thought it was a good world.

MAN 3: If I think it’s a good world? No. Definitely no way. No way jose. It’s definitely not a good world we’re living in right now. We have a president who doesn’t care about the people and he’s a nasty -- he’s nasty -- he’s a nasty individual. How can you have a good world? He’s the only president we’ve had a problem with like this. All the other ones were normal. This one isn’t normal at all. I don’t know what his problem is. He is a problem person.

ULA: Thank you very much.

ULA: Do you think this is a good world?

MAN 4: Yes. Yes. There’s still a lot of good people in here. You see a lot of stories lately, you know? Especially like on channel 7 and channel 4, where they show the -- at the end of the news at 7:00, they usually have a good story. Still a lot of good people.

ULA: Thank you very much.

ULA: After he walks away, he yells at me, “I’m a good person. Retired NYPD.” And I yell back, “Thank you for your service.”

ULA: Wow, New York, New York.

MAN 5: El mundo es bueno porque Dios nos lo regalo pero el mundo nosotros estamos cargando de dañar. Con que? Por ejemplo con las drogas, con las armas, con la guerra, con la construcción. Nosotros estamos cargando de dañarlo pero el mundo es bueno. Todo Dios nos lo regalo pero el mundo nosotros estamos cargando de dañar.

ULA: Gracias.

ULA: I’m watching the people I speak to walk down the block from me and back out into their own lives. A lot of good people...or that’s how they seem to me.

New Yorkers in 1919 didn’t know what the next century would bring. The next summer, women’s suffrage would be ratified - constitutional, but incomplete. In ten years, the stock market would crash. Ten years after that, half a million New Yorkers would serve in the second world war. 14,000 of them would die. People would get married. Get divorced. Have kids. Get jobs. Lose them. Bury loved ones. Cook dinner. Go to church. Get arrested. Get sick. Get better. Hurt each other.

In 2019, we don’t know what the future will bring either. We live longer now. We’re healthier. We still fight wars, but they’re different. There is slow progress and a lot of pain. Optimism feels impossible sometimes, or even willfully ignorant. But we can only live in the moment we’re in. Both things can be true. It can be rotten and good, all at once.

ULA: Can I ask you a question? So 100 years ago, a reporter stood here and asked people, “is this a good world?” Can I ask you the same thing?

WOMAN: A good world for what?

ULA: For living in.

WOMAN: Yes. I have so much problems within this 2, 3 years, but it’s over.  Now I have time to enjoy the nature. To see the birds and the trees. Before I’m so busy for living, now you know what I do?

ULA: What?

WOMAN:  I’m sorry, I’m not supposed to. I feed the birds on the street. Haha. Love the animals.

ULA: Thank you

WOMAN: Honey, it’s cold. You better protect yourself. Ayaaa.

ULA: I will. Thank you.

ULA: This episode of Going Forward was made in partnership with Here Be Monsters. It was produced by me, Ula Kulpa, Julia Drachman, and Jeff Emtman. Mix, score, and sound design by Jeff Emtman.

The songs you heard were “Smiles,” by Lambert Murphy  (1918) and “You Hear the Lambs a-Cryin'” by Fisk University Jubilee Singers (1920)

Our theme song is by Phoenix Glendinning.

Special thanks to our Patreon supporters, especially Janus and Renata Kulpa, and Jonathan and Paula Drachman. If you’d like to support the show, head to patreon.com/goingforward. And you can find us online at goingforwardpod.com.

Thanks for listening! See you next month