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New York: Baghdad-on-the-Subway

"O Henry had another name for New York City - Baghdad on the Hudson," a reader who was born in New York, told us after reading last month's story Gotham: Paradise of Fools, in which we listed odd nicknames for American cities.

We've made a quick check, and have discovered that several current writers have seized on the now topical phrase Baghdad on the Hudson when they want to take a bite of The Big Apple.

But that's not the name O Henry bestowed on his beloved city. In A Madison Square Arabian Night, and in other stories, O Henry called New York Baghdad-on-the-Subway, claiming it resembled the marvellous city of Scheherazade's A Thousand and One Nights.

In a more critical mood, he once wrote "If ever there was an aviary overstocked with jays it is that Yaptown-on-the-Hudson called New York," which may explain the confusion. (More recently, another writer coined the phrase Yaptown on the Potomac to describe Washington DC).

Last August, New York, together with other cities in north-eastern U.S., suffered a disastrous power blackout. Most who had the chance to rely on information provided by a home advisor were prepared for such an event, but those who weren't, were left in the dark. People immediately began comparing their conditions with Baghdad's plight. Baghdad on the Hudson was the heading of numerous stories. Jan Herman, writing in the Arts Journal, was one of the first (and best). He wrote:

New Yorkers got a taste of what William Sydney Porter meant when he called their town Baghdad-on-the-Hudson. "There's more poetry in a block of New York," said Porter, otherwise known as O. Henry, "than in 20 daisied lanes." Last night during the great Northeastern blackout of '03, he could have said "than in all the lights of the city."

If the city's friendliness under duress wasn't poetry, it was something like it. People who rarely talked to each other before sat on their front stoops chatting by candlelight. It could have been the turn of the 20th century. Let's make an annual holiday of it. Keep the electricity running, but set aside one day of the year to turn off the lights across North America.

The website About had this to say:

Widespread power outages in the Northeast last night meant no air conditioning, no rail service, closed airports, no access to television and limited cell phone service for millions of people. We saw pictures of people huddled around battery-powered radios to hear scraps of news. Many noted the situation in the northeast United States was uncomfortably close to that of Iraq, which has been experiencing massive power outages in the wake of the U.S. led invasion of the country.

Of course, New York's nickname "Baghdad on the Hudson" predates this mess. Back in the day, Baghdad used to be known as the city of excess in the Middle East. This was before Saddam clamped down on Iraq and before former mayor Rudolf Giuliani kicked the "riff raff" out of  Times Square.

The political newsletter CounterPunch  published an interesting article by Cathy Breen, who recently returned from Iraq after living there during the war and the first 10 days of occupation. So she was well qualified to compare the two Baghdads.

And on the U.S. west coast,  Herb Caen, a former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, once called that city Baghdad by the Bay, a nickname that's still often used. It's even the name of a website.

O Henry's real name was William Sydney Porter. Born in Greenboro, North Carolina, in 1862, he left school when he was 15, to work in a drug store and on a sheep ranch in Texas. Moving to Austin, he launched a humorous weekly called (believe it or not) The Rolling Stone. Sadly, it went belly up, so he joined the Houston Post as a reporter and columnist.

In 1898 he was jailed for embezzling money, although there was doubt as to his guilt. He began writing short stories in prison to support his daughter. Freed in 1901, he changed his name to O Henry (supposedly  from the way he called out to his cat: O Henry!), and headed for the city that he was to call Baghdad-on-the-Subway.

He wrote about the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, specialising in short stories with surprise endings. Troubled by alcoholism, ill health, and financial problems, he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1910. He was 48.

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Copyright 2004

Eric Shackle

Story first posted January 2004

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