Things fall together
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- May 30 – Early Afternoon
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Notes of a New York Son
1995 – 2007
THINGS FALL TOGETHER
December 21, 1995 – December 19, 2001
À nous la liberté
Wonder of the World
THE MAN AT TABLE 4
December 20, 2001 – December 20, 2003
The Sorryass Business
La La Land
Abode of Peace
Groove ton chemin
BUSH OF GHOSTS
January 17, 2004 – February 11, 2005
Nouvelles de nulle part
Little By Little
BRAVE NEW YORK
BOOK OF MANITOU
January 13 – March 3, 2007
THINGS FALL TOGETHER
December 21, 1995 – December 19, 2001
What a clear sky covers this place.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON
Winter Solstice – West 12th Street – Late Afternoon
The cold quickens your pace. This is the moment he catches up with you: god of
winter, the real McCoy, wearing his multitude of grays. You walk east together.
Where’s dawn now – somewhere over China? When you reach Hudson Street, you’ll
cross it and head north, stop at La Taza d’Oro on the far side of 14th Street to pick up
dinner: ropa vieja with white rice and red beans for Katie and for you, bacalao stew
with yellow rice and black beans. Dos flanes por favor. Y un café con leche. Gwen will
share some of your food, and if she’s still hungry, Katie will make her famous “instant
Snow on the sidewalk, deep slush in the gutters, thinned to soup on the
cobblestones. Hardly anyone about. A block ahead, in Jackson Square Park, the
bloodorange, angled sun, soon to plunge, tricks the eye, makes the bronze soldier’s flag
seem molten, melting round his shoulders. See? He’s about to step off his pedestal and
begin marching toward the source of life.
To your right across the street, the facades of townhouses cast deep in shadow.
Behind a parlor window, a flash of movement catches your eye – a tiny pink and open
hand floats, detached. You peer deeper, try to penetrate the darkened room beyond the
frame. Make out the shape of an infant, held on hip. Then the hip of the holder, the
pattern of the nanny’s dress, and a vague outline of her form, nothing more. You wave
back. The tiny palm moves in response, its gesture animated by a steady, unseen hand.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON
lights on the passage above. Time to start another volume and line this one up on the
shelf at the head of the parade of twelve more-or-less-identical black, red-spined
journals dating back to when the ‘80s were young and very afraid, but you were not,
and had more hair. Odd bits: songs, plays, quotes, stories, first drafts of novels,
research nuggets for the World Trade Center project – an archaeology of random
associations. The books are cheap enough, so you never feel under pressure to write
anything important. And they’re readily available at Pearl River on Canal Street, or a
dozen other shops in Chinatown. Depending on the energy of your muses, each book
takes a year or more to fill.
Something you like about the bit you just found. The way the city unfolds
before you, yet in response to your movement through it. Most of what you’ve written
of New York feels more static – you’re here and it’s there – a historical distance, or
fantastical space stands in between. Could you consciously tune into that more
available channel? Teach yourself to observe and record as rapidly, as accurately as
possible, the dance of what happens in your ambit of perception? Wouldn’t the infant’s
hand be as good a moment as any to start with?
Why make a project of it? And why now? “Why?” is always a silly question to
ask. But if you had to square with yourself you’d say the new wrinkle is fear. You’ve
been afraid in your city plenty of times, but never for your city – the place it’s turning
into. Or of what living here is doing to you. Fear has carried your anger to a new level,
changed its valence into something that feels scary in and of itself. So the question is:
can you transform fear and anger into the impulse to write down whatever comes of
being present here?
You’ll need to find a language for the changes – in the harbor currents, in the
atmosphere. A mode of expression for the way the deck of your own life pitches with
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON
the city’s rolls, the waves cresting higher even than you remember them the day Jack
first took you on the Staten Island ferry and the spray washed over the bow and into
your face, when – forty years ago?
And then, a score of harbor-crossings later, you had your bicycle, he had his.
The ferry pulled up snug in its berth, you pedaled up the ramp, and let the lay of the
land take you where you wanted to go.
May 24 – Downtown C Train
Early evening. Still spring. Outside the temperature’s boiled over but the
subway car is chilled unto a meat locker. You sit two empty spaces to the right of a
young man who’s positioned directly across the aisle from a young woman with skin
the color of café con leche from Mi Chinita. Makeup seamless as a mask. Slightly
walleyed, huge green irises. Twin chopsticks, asymmetrical, transfix her hair.
Goosebumps on her upper arms you can see from here. Sleeveless shirt, blinding white,
upturned collar, knotted at the diaphragm. Purse perched neatly in her lap, fingers
wrapped round its bamboo handles. Electric indigo jeans, thin knees pressed together,
legs drawn up so her red platform sneaker toes stand nearly en pointe. A woman from
The man leans forward into the aisle, elbows resting on his thighs. Apart from a
slow expanse and contraction of ribs, utterly still. Hands clasped, bare arms, and face a
shade browner than his silky black parachute pants. Is he staring at her? Hard to tell –
he’s wearing wrap-around shades. Head capped with a black do-rag – the little knot at
his crown making possible the idea that he was born here, in exactly this seat, extruded
out of the will-to-being of the city itself.
The car takes the eastward bend below 14th Street, swerves diagonally beneath
Greenwich Avenue. Wheel against rail like a knife grinder pressing blade to stone. Full
speed into the West 4th Street station. Out onto the torrid platform you go – glance
back at them. Neither has shifted an iota. What is she gazing at? The man? The white,
green and black-tiled wall behind the window? Or something you can’t imagine? Turn
away. The train overtakes your walking pace, rumbles by moving fast enough for the
windows to have turned transparent stripe. But in the middle ground, you glimpse the
young man, still scissored into the aisle, his face teetering on the brink of a question.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON
May 27 – Late Evening
Dinner party at Frazier and Stephanie’s. Good company, wonderful food – the
only drawback being that Stephanie spends most of the evening in the kitchen, cooking
or washing up and she won’t let you, or anyone, help. Amidst dessert and winding
conversation, Frazier dubs cassettes for you: Albert Ayler’s “Greenwich Village” and
John Cale solo, accompanying himself on piano. Way past Gwen’s bedtime. You
gather her, sleeping, off the bed and head for the subway.
Lately, whenever you go to Brooklyn on the weekend, you find yourself waiting
endlessly for the train home. Or else there’s track work and a detour. Anyone with an
ounce of sense calls a car service. But you, you’re a stalwart for public transport. Not
least because a car service costs plenty, unless you share the ride with someone heading
your way. So you make for the Carroll Street subway stop, and this time, surprise,
surprise, no sooner do you drop your token and push through the turnstile than a
nearly-empty Manhattan-bound F train rumbles in.
Just after midnight. Katie rests her head on your shoulder, Gwen still asleep in
your lap. Down at the end of the car, a heavily-muscled man in camo pants and
sleeveless olive drab teeshirt sleeps too, stretched out along several seats. The train
stops and your eyes pop open. You hadn’t been aware of closing them. A skinny,
wavering drunk steps on board, somehow keeps his balance as the train jolts into
motion. With the singlemindedness of the truly stoned, he staggers over to where
Camo Man lies and stands over him, rubber-limbed and aggrieved. In your half-awake
state, you can almost hear his wheels turning. Whassup wi this? Somassole lyin down my
“Yo!” he roars, above the train noise. “Get up!” No response. He leans over,
kneads Camo Man’s shoulders, steps back, hands on his hips. Like a baker waiting for
his dough to rise. Not enough leavening. Again he pushes his palms into Camo Man’s
back. “Get up, yo!” With infinite lassitude, Camo Man untucks his head, looks up and
squints in disbelief – à la Clint Eastwood, straight out of Dirty Harry. Then he burrows
back into the crook of his arm, its bicep roughly the circumference of your thigh.
But Skinny Drunk is on a mission. He pummels Camo Man’s back with the
insistence of one bent on redressing a grave injustice. Finally, Bingo. It takes only an
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON
eyeblink, but Camo Man is on his feet, close-cropped black hair grazing the ceiling, eyes
alive with hatred. The train squeals to a stop at East Broadway. Astonished by the
scale of the Colossus he’s raised, Skinny Drunk staggers backward, gropes in his back
pocket. Doors open. It’s not your station, not even close, but you’re already on the
platform, Gwen held in one arm, her head nestled into your neck. Katie on your heels.
Bing-bong. The doors roll shut. Camo Man and Skinny Drunk remain aboard. They
own that car free and clear.
Yellow cab ride home.
May 30 – Early Afternoon
You cross Houston Street and head uptown feeling triumphant. Just signed off
on the blueprints for the CWA 1180 newspaper, and the rest of your birthday is your
own. Jesus, how did you get to be 46? Shake that thought off. Katie will make roast
beef, mashed potatoes and asparagus. Tomato juice apéritif. Chocolate cake for
dessert, perhaps with fruit salad. But it’s early yet so why not treat yourself to a lemon
ice from Caffè Dante? A song from when you were young comes into your head, but a
kink in your mind turns it to parody before organizes itself into voice: Let me take you on
a sedimental journey. You used to bicycle all around here, at first on Jack’s handlebars,
later on your black English 3-speed, a smaller version of his own.
Dante sells the best-textured lemon ice in the Village, and not too sweet. But it’s
no better for the two bucks it costs – and being called granita – than the little cups you
used to buy for a nickel at the newsstand on Thompson Street, just round the corner the
from your old house on West Broadway. That was then, and this is the upscale Village
now. The waitress packs the cup down pretty well then tops it off with a round,
generous scoopful. Still it’s threatening to avalanche down the sides. So you take a
couple of napkins and start licking fast. Nod goodbye, glance up toward the replica of
Dante’s death mask on the wall. Out the door into the heat, past the basketball courts –
no one’s playing today. Cross Sixth Avenue, then bear right forty-five degrees onto
Bedford Street – diagonals get you there faster, wherever you’re going. Bedford’s an
old sheep path that cuts northwest through the Village to Christopher Street – the one-
time Champs Elysée of Gay Liberation’s belle epoch. Behind an unassuming door along
the way there’s Chumley’s. It is said a tunnel leads from the ex-speakeasy’s basement
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 10
It’s a third of a mile more or less to Christopher and several streets intersect
along the way. Downing Street comes first – still a tough northwestern outpost of the
ever-shrinking Little Italy. Your ice lasts you past Carmine, as far as Leroy and its
junction with Seventh Avenue. But it isn’t until you hit Morton that the cup goes soggy
and you chuck it into a garbage can. When you were a kid, a civics lesson came at
every corner, on signs riveted to the trash receptacles: A cleaner New York is up to you.
And you remember it was on Waverly Place that you first jumped clear over one of
those steel mesh bins. Maybe you were nine. On your first attempt, you’d cleared it,
but whanged your elbow on the rim coming down. But the next time you aced it, and
afterward jumped them regularly without mishap until once, too tired to make a proper
go of it, you ran up, leapt, and landed inside feet-first.
Now you’re crossing Barrow Street, once called Reason Street, named in a doff of
the tricorn to the Age of Reason, Tom Paine’s post-revolutionary bestseller. By the mid-
19th century Reason Street had fructified into Raisin Street. Was it a sign of Reason’s
fate in the crucible of the young republic, or some unacknowledged Cockney-ism? You
would like to believe that raisins were sold out of barrows here, but Barrow was the
surname of the artist who engraved a popular view of Trinity Church’s parish, recorded
Trinity Church used to own the land you’re walking through. At the end of the
seventeenth century, King William III granted Trinity its charter and a title to most of
lower Manhattan in exchange for an annual rent of “one peppercorne.” Queen Anne
endowed Trinity with more acreage still. Come the Revolution, Trinity severed its ties
to the Mother Church. A debt, however, remains a debt, and when Queen Elizabeth
comes to visit New York next year, Trinity’s congregation plans to pay the arrears – to
the tune of two hundred and some odd peppercorns.
Over time, Trinity’s holdings distilled down to thirty-one Lower Manhattan
buildings. In the vertical city, it’s less how much land you own than the rentable space
built on top. In this case, an aggregate floorspace of six million square feet, making
Trinity one of the city’s largest commercial landlords. Come to think it, you were in a
Trinity building half an hour ago. Your printer, Astoria Graphics, has its offices on the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 11
Mitch and Ron run Astoria – they’re sons of the son of Astoria’s founder, so their
grandfather may have moved there in the ‘20s, when Manhattan’s printing industry
expanded into the vast reinforced concrete structures, many with immense gridded
windows, that sprang up south of Houston along Varick and Hudson Streets, the two
great traffic conduits hacked through the built-up city toward the Holland Tunnel.
Astoria still keeps a few presses and binding machines downtown, but the big web
press, the one they’ll use for your newspaper job, was moved to New Jersey. As far as
Mitch knows, no one runs newsprint in Manhattan anymore. Eventually Astoria’s
whole operation will follow, though most of their clients are still located in the city.
Trinity has taken to quadrupling rents, or refusing to renew leases altogether. Presses
make a fair amount of noise. Nor is Superior printing ink the scent that landlords waft
to lure the new generation of techno-tenants. Astoria’s volume simply doesn’t generate
the kinds of revenue that would allow them to pay venture capital rates per square foot.
So it’s west they go. Or close up shop.
Corner of Grove Street now. There’s Sharon’s building – or at any rate the
tenement she used to live in. What’s become of her? Of Robin? Of a dozen other ex-
comrades? You don’t think much about those days now. Must be twenty years since
you saw her. But more than once you went to meetings up at Sharon’s – which was if
not the most, then certainly high up on the short list of surveilled radical pads in New
York City. At any hour, day or night, a little knot of specious-looking guys just
happened to be hanging out on the block carrying off their “undercover” with varying
degrees of transparency. Who can say? A few might have been authentic loiterers. But
there were plenty of obvious flatfoots, absurd in their fake hippie drag and tell-tale cop
shoes, ill at ease, and fooling no one.
Sharon’s living room formed a kind of alembic in which every strain of the
Movement converged: Young Lords, Panthers, Yippees, Crazies, John Lennon and the
Elephant’s Memory. Schemes were born there, amidst fumes of opiated Cambodian
hash or some such visionary aid, conspiracies not so much to overthrow the state as to
show it up for all its pretensions of sovereignty, send a message to whomever might
care that its power could be challenged. Some terrific agit-prop emerged – ultra-
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 12
monstrous absurdities of the war into the forefront of folk’s consciousnesses, and by
virtue of that, disrupting, however fleetingly, the business of aggression as usual.
How to condense so charged a moment into a sentence or two? Suffice it that as
the hand of the state came down heavier, the Movement turned increasingly desperate.
It was up at Sharon’s, in the latter-days of an evermore rancid, refracted dream of
revolution, that you just said no to Robin’s idea of bombing a bank. You and a couple of
your tightest mates backed away from that one fast, less out of fear that you’d get
caught – which seemed a certainty given the scrutiny you were under – than because it
just seemed out of date, a tactic whose time had come and gone. There had to be
something better, though damned if you knew what it was. But Robin persisted, and it
landed him in Attica, right in time for the uprising. All his co-conspirators got busted
too, among them Sharon and five others, the youngest one the same age as you. As it
turned out, the cops were onto Robin from the get-go thanks to an informer on the
inside. But in his way, Robin was a lucky guy – he survived by sheer good luck the
State Police assault when right next to him in D-yard, a sharpshooter’s bullet hit the
skull of his best friend, Sam Melville. Your onetime upstairs neighbor, Sam literally
died in Robin’s hands.
As the ‘70s wore on, whenever you passed down Bedford, you’d look for the fire
engine red Free Leary! Free the Panther 21! that Sharon had spray painted on the brick
wall in the space between the garbage cans and the ground floor windows. The slogan
persisted long past its moment, incrementally scoured by the elements, as close to
permanent as any artifact of the ephemeral city. Then one day, on your way home, you
saw the garbage cans had disappeared – most likely banished to the back courtyard.
Gone too the familiar soot, the gray bricks scrubbed to their original bleak off-white. In
place of Sharon’s battle-cry, a black-on-white enameled sign: Co-ops For Sale. The
apartments must have sold out, because today the sign is gone. You peer through the
lace windows of the commercial space on the corner, at the tables of a posh restaurant
where something funky used to be – was it a laundromat? Walk on by.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 13
You register them first from behind, the woman wide-hipped, a little kid walking
beside her – mother and son? She’s white as pie dough, ash blonde. The boy’s hair is
black, close-cropped, his skin brown as Le Gamin’s café au lait. Something distracts
you and when you look again they’ve gone down in a heap together just past Bassry’s
stand. Must have been a freak fall, their feet somehow tangled.
You close the distance fast. The boy starts crying, first with shock because mom
fell, but he’s busted his lip and now he tastes his blood, wipes his mouth and sees it too.
Instinctively you reach out to see how badly he’s cut, but pull your hand back. Don’t get
bled on, bro. See, it’s come to this, reflexive fear of the substance we all share. You pull
your own lips back, show him what you want him to do. He imitates. Teeth seem
intact, no chips, no blood inside. Mom’s landed on her knee, abraded it – already
there’s a swelling beneath the scrape. She tries to reach out for her son, but can’t move
far, she’s just too big. She’s crying too, but lets go a string of curses at her injured leg.
Squatting there, your heart goes into a kind of freefall, you rub the kid’s back, try to
calm him down, but he’s not buying and just as you begin to imagine their misery
grown so huge it engulfs the whole world, an angel comes out of Shangrila. She bears a
wad of wet paper towels for Mom’s knee, and speaks comforting words, and as they
quiet down, you each take one of Mom’s big arms and together lift and half-drag her
into the salon. The angel finds Mom an empty chair beneath a hair dryer and a stool to
prop her leg up on. She brings the boy to a basin where he rinses his mouth in the
cooling waters. All this as, round about, the day’s frostings, weavings, waxings, nail
decorations and pedicures go on.
No more to be done, at least not by you, so you leave the air conditioned
paradise, push out into the prematurely ripened summer heat, and turn back to where
you were headed in the first place: Bassry’s stand to buy bananas, five for a buck, not
too green and not too ripe. Thirty-five years you’ve lived a block and a half away. But
never once set foot in Shangrila, until today.
She daubs with blue, puts the finishing touches on her latest. Propped up or
lying flat on the table that serves as her sidewalk studio-cum-gallery, a dozen variations
on a theme: the Statue of Liberty set against a cloudless sky. Her palette’s consistent,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 14
you’d guess on average around nine inches by twelve. Plenty more paintings packed in
cardboard boxes beneath the table. Her sign reads:
WE LOVE STATUE OF LIBERTY,
THERE ARE STILL SOME GOOD PEOPLE LIVING IN THIS WORLD.
NOVEMBER 1898 - JUNE 1996. BERTHA HALOZ.
the motion’s involuntary. It’s perverse, but you nearly laugh aloud, her name’s so close
to Haldol. Yet as she paints, her hand’s rock steady.
Gwen sits in her stroller and you bend down closer to her ear, point to one of the
pictures. “Our Lady of the Harbor,” you explain. But Gwen’s looking everywhere,
taking in the whole of her big city. Onward then, to the playground at Jackson Square.
Late spring gusts blow sand your way, and the smell of linden.
Alane calls, most excited. First review of Free City, in Publisher’s Weekly, and it’s
a good one, replete with quotable nuggets: “Darton’s seductive fable is a stylistic tour
de force, a dazzling parable about the birth of the modern age with its terrors and
promise.…a debut novel reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s work in its dashing mingling of
history and fantasy.”
Still hard for you to image that in a little over two months, after so many years,
you’ll have a book out. Bea was right.
July 14, Noon
Up to Central Park for the annual birthday picnic. Gwen, Gwen, Gwen, Gwen!
Four, Four, Four, Four!
Berlin Verlag’s bought German rights to Free City. There’s a bit of good news.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 15
Second call from Alane in the p.m. The review in the Times is a fair one – “witty
and surprising” – but there’s an edge of disappointment in her voice. She wishes it
were longer. Still, they did put it in a box, accompanied by an illustration. Overall,
your reaction is whew! – dodged a bullet there.
Studio visit to see Linda B.’s new paintings. For a change you’re early. Nothing
to do but wait. Weather’s still warm. Stiff breeze off the East river. Across the street, a
door on the second floor opens onto a fire escape. A man wearing a white dust mask
squats on the landing, spraying a trayful of tiny silver objects light green. The tray’s
mounted on a kind of lazy susan which, every so often, he rotates a quarter turn. With
each spin, the bits on the tray turn greener. Occasionally a gust and a little cloud of
over-spray drifts between the bars of the fire escape. The inside face of the door looks
like an artwork – blotches of a hundred colors – test sprays going back to who knows
when? Over and over down the street a pickup truck tries to start. A helicopter moves
crabwise into the wind over the river. The sound of chain pulleys and a metallic groan
as a garage door begins to rise.
• • •
Linda’s the real deal. Tremendous integrity to the work. Nothing else like it.
Lyrical and rigorous. But the rub is, it hardly reads in a photograph. One simply has to
be in its presence for the chromatics to cohere at all. Painting in the service of light.
Another coign of vantage. Since the World Trade Center adopted you as its
confessor, you make it a point to look at it from every angle you can – inscribe in your
internal geography its effect upon the skylines and horizons. The Scudder Homes used
to stand here: a complex of four highrise slabs, demolished around ten years ago,
replaced by “town houses.” From their front steps the nearly twin towers remain
clearly visible. But it must’ve been something else entirely to look east from a high floor
in a Newark tower toward its Manhattan cousins – phantoms, so vast and far away.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 16
Would that Bea could have been here last night for the Free City bash. Shouldn’t
the dead get a furlough once in a while to be in the presence of the moments they
anticipated? “I told you so,” she’d have said. One of your few regrets is how you used
to blow her off when she’d offer her conviction that your writing would eventually
make it into print. You used to think she was just telling you some horseshit to keep
herself happy and you from despair. But now? How much pleasure she would have
gotten out of reading your little purple book.
Uptown 23rd Street subway platform. Three young women, office workers, wait
for the train to take them homeward. Where to – upper Manhattan? Queens? One
talks louder than her mates, more energetically, something to do with Halloween in her
neighborhood. You’re only half-listening, but one line cuts through. “Why would ya
throw a toilet off the roof? That’s something you’re going to need later!”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 17
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