I remember seeing a clip of former President Dwight Eisenhower with Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for president in 1964. They were at Eisenhower’s farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania filming a campaign infomercial. To make a long story short, Eisenhower said at one point—in reference to charges that Goldwater was a warmonger—“This is actual tommyrot.” Tommyrot was an expression unfamiliar to me, but I liked the sound of it. The word’s homespun informality had a certain appeal. Tommyrot means “nonsense”—or “rubbish” if you prefer—and has an appropriate nonsensical ring as well.
There’s this tightfisted money-worshiper in the old neighborhood who got me thinking about “tommyrot.” He’ll remain anonymous, but his forename shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out. Let’s call him Mr. T, a landlord many times over. The man buys up houses and rents the apartments therein at exorbitant prices, which sadly are the going rates for this time and place. The end-result of the practices of Mr. T and his ilk—and there are many like him—are revolving-door tenants, many of whom don’t give a whit about their transient residence and neighbors. As a favor to his son, a friend of mine looked at an apartment owned by the incomparable Mr. T. The rug in its living room was filthy, he told me, an incidental pointed out to the landlord during their tour. “That’s not my job!” Mr. T said in response. And he was asking over two grand for the two-bedroom apartment. A one-off cleaning lady was obviously not included in the price.
Courtesy of Mr. T and tommyrot, I had landlords on my mind yesterday as I walked up Ninth Avenue through a Manhattan neighborhood nicknamed “Hell’s Kitchen.” Once upon a time an Irish working-class stronghold—and quite gritty environs as you might imagine—it is no longer hospitable to folks of modest means. The Irish mob, the Westies, don’t even live there anymore. Suffice it to say: It’s not your grandfather’s Hell’s Kitchen. In the rough-and-tumble days gone by, there were mom-and-pop delicatessens, not “gourmet” delis with unintentionally ironic names. The locals from yesteryear didn’t know brunch from a smoothie. The sober-minded drank egg creams, which aren’t typically available in the contemporary gourmet establishments, and the others, libations with a little more edge. This was Hell’s Kitchen, after all.
According to Wikipedia’s description of Hell’s Kitchen now, it’s become home to a fair share of Wall Street financiers. My Mr. T could probably afford to live there. I see, too, that there are various accounts of how the neighborhood received its infamous moniker. The one I like best is attributed to a veteran policeman, “Dutch Fred,” who was partnered with a rookie. The newbie is reported to have said, “This place is hell itself.” Dutch Fred then set him straight in no uncertain terms: “Hell’s a mild climate. This is Hell’s Kitchen.” It’s not Dutch Fred’s Hell’s Kitchen anymore, either.
(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)