- Department of Development
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[End Page 33]
In 1980 I had so little success aptitude that in three years since college I'd never been hired for anything but gardening, painting, housecleaning, or cooking. I told an intake clerk at the New York State Department of Labor that I was working as a poet, and I got the job at City Hall because on the way to the interview I asked directions from a delicate graying man loping leisurely down the marble hall. "Why, it's right this way," he said in mock surprise and gestured with a flourish, and that I raised my eyebrows and mimicked his little bow seemed to please him. My meeting in the Department of Development with Gerri Corvado, who smoked, swore, and barked questions demanding that I prove myself, typically did not go well, and I was surprised when she called me in to meet the commissioner. The federal government's CETA program was going to pick up the tab, and David Kendig, the spectral vision I'd met in the hall, had told Corvado to hire me.
Our mission was to "develop" the city of New Rochelle, thirty minutes by rail from Manhattan. Its main street with eight neon-marqueed movie theaters had collapsed when Bloomingdale's, its anchor department store on the Boston Post Road, had closed and moved elsewhere. A new downtown mall five or six blocks away, anchored by Macy's, had been built but had not stuck. Corvado wrote grant proposals that brought in great rehab sums from Housing and Urban Development, and my job was to gather the grant materials and program cultural events like art shows and noon concerts in the downtown. We worked in a smoky, windowless cube strewn with papers, which adjoined the commissioner's office, a large, sunny, airy room with plants and Persian rugs. When the commissioner was wooing a developer in there, his feet would have to grope under the desk for his loafers so he could go get Corvado to explain the numbers. She was the brain and moneymaker of the department, forever making hushed telephone deals, and I was a little scared of her. "Get me the New York State Council on the Arts file," she'd command from the phone, and in a panic I'd pull the N, S, C, and A drawers. When I did manage to produce a file, it was always too late. I preferred the chain-smoking Kendig, who seemed too irreverent and bohemian for a political figure but nonetheless haunted Corvado's office through a back door from the main hall. When I asked him what he did for the city, he replied with exaggerated flair that he was a "consultant to the arts."
"And what does that mean?" [End Page 34]
"I answer the mayor's mail," he said flatly, "and"—he crossed his legs in theatrical snobbery while lifting his head with closed eyes—"I chair the blue-ribbon panel."
"Can't he answer his own mail?"
"Rocco Barsarollata couldn't write a letter if he tried," Gerri cut in to explain. "Our mayor"—she looked to Kendig—"is really stupid. Fortunately, he's just a figurehead, so nobody gives a shit. The city manager, G. Lemuel Bassinger, really runs things."
"And the blue-ribbon panel?"
"Some rich housewives from the North End started writing letters to the Standard–Star about the lack of kul-cha in our city," David chuckled, "so the mayor appointed a blue-ribbon panel to study the situation." He sighed. "Actually, I was only hired because they felt sorry for me."
"That's enough." Gerri cut him short with her cigarette and pulled the chair up to her desk, but I soon knew his tale. Every day after five I drove him to a neon-signed bar called Flanagan's, where he recovered from work with vodka martinis and told me about his life. "My grandfather invented the tea bag," he soon began after a first savored sip. He'd spent his childhood in a Waspy Connecticut home held together by a crew of black servants with...