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- July 5
- July 19 – New York to Paris
- July 21 – Evening
- July 26 – Asnières-Sur-Seine – Early Morning
Marjorie, your neighbor from the 19th floor, is walking down the path from the
front door to the sidewalk just as you’re coming in. Usually when you see her, she’s
leading her nearly blind husband, a former French teacher at NYU, but this time she’s
en seulle and stops to chat. “Ruth told me you wrote a book about the World Trade
Bless Ruth. You’ve known her since you were twelve and she was what, forty-
nine? Still lives in the apartment right below you, moved in at the same time you and
Bea did. Forty years gone, but nothing’s dulled her engagement with the world. Which
makes her an unimpeachably sincere booster of all she finds of value. And she values
art, ideas and experiment bigtime, reveres culture in a way that’s hard to imagine now
with the optimism of a generation that believed their work might make a better world.
She once introduced you to friend, claimed you as the pride of Penn South, “our own
Upton Sinclair.” If you had the money and she were even a few years younger, you’d
hire Ruth to do PR.
“You know,” Marjorie confides, “Minoru Yamasaki was a close friend of my
family. I remember, when he came to New York, he would look at the World Trade
Center and say: ‘these are not my buildings’ – because they made him do so many
changes. The downstairs part perhaps he thought was his – but not the rest.”
Plunked down the money and bought ze tickets pour visiter La Belle France cet été.
Ulp. Big gamble. The whole family boodle’s on the line – Goddard escrow account and
more. But if not now, when? And how, apart from setting foot in it, will Gwen come to
come to connect with a world out there, even wider and more varied than the city she’s
grown up in?
Afternoon surprise – who should visit you at the café but the villain of Free City –
his spirit anyway. He insists on telling his side of the story. Wants to take a star turn in
his own novel. Right away – immediately. That’s the kind of guy he is.
Coffee gets cold. No matter. You’ve got plenty of ink. For however many pages
you’re permitted to live in the ductile and life-giving republic of fiction, you’ll have a
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 117
place where, more and more, only your body resides.
Ten days of Goddard residency to get through, then two days back in the city,
and you’re off to Paris. As the time approaches, the mechanisms of everyday life
reduce to a series of dead-hearted exercises that become increasingly less tolerable.
Each action you’re called upon to perform, even those that normally give you pleasure,
like going to the café, makes its way grudgingly against a tide of fractious and petty
moods you’re hard put to suppress. What’s the game here? Guilt at abandoning New
York, however briefly?
Looked at straight on, you’re pretty sure this weirdness is all bound up with
your father, and specifically his credible promise, the summer you turned fifteen, that
he’d cut you off if you accompanied your mother and aunt to England and France –
your first potential taste of travel abroad and hence beyond his control. Back then
you’d felt a resolute calm in the face of his fury. You even recall a sense of exhilaration
at his having made the choice so clear for you – decided in a heartbeat that you’d rather
never see Jack again than be subject to his dictation.
But this is now, and some diffuse and angry power threatens to punish you
beyond measure if you skip town. The only thing to do is tell the monster to fuck off.
And take your freedom as you find it. You always have.
Three eggs in one basket, seats A, B & C, row 22, the 757 taxiing into position,
poised for takeoff. Unbelievable. This is really going to happen.
You lean in toward Gwen, half shouting over the noise of the turbines. This is
the image grandma Bea saw in her head just before takeoff: great teams of horses
tethered to the plane straining to bound forward and sweep it, like a chariot, into the
sky. Look out the window at the vibrating wing and you can sense them, invisible and
protean. This is it. They’ve been given their heads. Galloping now. Place your hand
over hers, the purple cast on the armrest. Don’t squeeze her fingers. The tarmac
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 118
steeply angling – into your element.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 119
À NOUS LA LIBERTÉ
July 20 – Paris – Late Evening
Such density of image and sensation greets you here, it’s impossible to sleep yet.
Jet-lagged, the three of you stroll through the amusement park set up on the Tuilleries,
toward a huge Ferris wheel set up just west of the Louvre. Katie doesn’t do heights, so
you and Gwen take the ride together. No enclosed compartments here. You sit in
something that resembles a large dangling saucer – the sides don’t come up nearly high
enough – particularly given that that some of the more adventurous passengers seem to
be purposely swinging in them and spinning them round.
Fortunately, you and Gwen get a dish to yourselves, and position yourselves on
opposite sides to counterbalance it. The wheel begins to turn. Two takeoffs in as many
days. Upward you soar. Glimpse yourselves in miniature framed by the lights of the
wheel reflecting off the windows of the Louvre – and now you clear the roofline. Near
the apex, the wheel stops and you hang there, swaying gently to the creak of metal
joints. An unaccustomed voice, not one you recognize, speaks plainly inside your head:
hand. A lurch, and onward you roll.
Katie spots you and waves from her bench as you descend, sweep past six
o’clock and then ascend again. A weight seems to have lifted off Katie here too, at least
for the moment. Even from a distance, and in the dim lantern light, she looks radiant.
From the top of the arc, you can read the time on the backlit glass clockfaces of the
Musée d’Orsay across the Seine. Further to the southwest, the searchlight atop the Tour
Eiffel whips across the sky.
You shift your weight to point between L’Opéra and L’Arc de Triomphe and the
saucer rocks from side to side. Out there, you say, that’s Argenteuil, where grandma Bea
were born. You remember the photo on the dresser – the one taken right before they came to New
York – when Bea was three and aunt Gladys five?
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 120
She recalls the picture, even that the tall, elegant woman with the beaky nose
standing behind them was their mother Helen, from whom she gets her middle name.
Gwen’s never seen the photo of her great grandfather Meyer standing outside the door
of his embroidery workshop circa 1910, when he’d have been around thirty-four, arms
folded across his chest, sleeves rolled to the elbows, the distillation of self-assurance and
still-youthful virility. You’ll have to dig that one up for her when you get home.
Early this morning, Sunday, to the bird market on Ile de la Cité near Notre Dame
where Gwen fell under the thrall of a tiny bright orange canary. You convinced her of
the logic of not buying it, but nonetheless she named it: Mango.
Only now, as your body adjusts to the actuality of breathing in the Paris air, do
you begin to take in that you almost didn’t make it here.
Just over a week ago, up at Goddard, the day before her ninth birthday, Gwen
broke her wrist. But it could have been exponentially worse. In the midst of an
afternoon tutorial, a graduate assistant knocked on your office door, and informed you,
with the kind of goofy, wide-eyed Vermont Maid affect, that your daughter had been in
an accident. Where? At your dorm. How badly is she hurt? A half-embarrassed shrug.
When? Another shrug. Twenty minutes maybe.
You didn’t ask why nobody had called all that time, just bolted out the door and
set off across the campus at a dead run and arrived, panting like a dog, to find two
paramedics loading Gwen into an ambulance, strapped to a back board, her face tear-
stained above a neck brace. Katie, stricken-looking climbed in after her, called out that
Gwen had fallen down the stairwell from the second floor. You made straight for your
car. No time to find out anything more, nor let Gwen see that you were there before the
doors closed and the ambulance took off at a clip. Interminable the twelve miles or so
that you trailed the flashing lights along the road to Barre – all manner of terrors
playing in your head.
When they examined Gwen in the ER, it quickly became clear how lucky she had
been. She’d tried to slide down the banister and, in her enthusiasm, overshot it, fallen
twelve feet onto the steps below. No head, spine, or internal injuries. Just the simple
fractured wrist. Officially, you’re an atheist. But if you were the sort of fellow who
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 121
nudging Gwen over the banister’s edge, and swooped down to break her fall. No
denying that you’ve often had the sense of spirits running loose up at Goddard – not all
of them beneficent.
For now though, you give thanks to whatever powers conspired to place Gwen
on the balcony of this too-pricey hotel room, gazing out over the chimney stacks of the
7th arrondissement. “Pretty amazing,” she says, and points down rue de Verneuil
toward the wild effusion of devotional graffiti that covers the walls of what used to be
Serge Gainsbourg’s house. You’ve read somewhere that he’s buried in the
Montparnasse cemetery. Baudelaire too. Et Robert Desnos.
Still light out and nearly ten p.m.
Rain at dawn, which clears by mid-morning. A late breakfast, over which you
read, in the Herald Tribune, of a riot at the G-8 meeting in Genoa and the police killing of
a demonstrator. What a sorry, criminal spectacle: the world’s most presumptively
powerful – but truly the weakest of men – relying on legions of armed goons to protect
them, unable to claim authority over any urban center, much less whole of the globe
they are attempting to subjugate.
Amble down Boulevard St-Germain to the Cluny Museum. Perhaps it’s the
death of the protestor, but you find one life-sized wooden head of Christ – mask-like,
long detached from rest of the crucifix, if ever it belonged to one – particularly
disturbing. An unmediated truth cuts through the stylized form. At the corner of the
Son of Man’s eyes, deep wrinkles etched by anguish, and across his brow, punctures
from a crown of thorns, now missing, interspersed the filigree of tiny holes where real
termites have made a feast of his forehead. Christ’s lips are parted, his eyes heavy-
lidded. Whatever master carved this head, some six hundred years ago, caught nothing
of the god, only the essence of a living human being at the brink of transitioning into a
• • •
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 122
Afternoon. On the Rue de Sèvres a man with dark brown skin, wearing the
bright green uniform of the Propreté de Paris, plies the sidewalk with steaming spray
from a high-powered water gun. The hose is attached to a small vehicle parked by the
curb, and its length adjusts automatically.
So as to watch the spectacle undisturbed, you draw Katie and Gwen into a
doorway, where you confide to Gwen your belief that Parisians would stage another
revolution if told they had to pick up after their dogs, and for this reason, among others,
the city has deployed an army of workers equipped with the most advanced sanitation
By now the man has noticed the three of you staring raptly at his labors and he
responds by creating a spontaneous street cleaning drama in which you are very much
implicated. Step by step, he advances methodically toward you, blasting his targets on
the sidewalk with pinpoint accuracy and precipitating a tide of cigarette butts, dogshit
and random detritus into the gutter, helpless before his onslaught. Nearer and nearer
he draws, then parallel with you, then beyond, leaving a swath of wet pavement in his
wake. Yet your feet are still dry. The spray has passed just centimeters from the toes of
• • •
Evening. You convince Katie to overcome her embarrassment at doing
something so touristic and take a Bateau Mouche ride along the Seine. Up late and tired
from so much walking, Gwen can barely keep her eyes open, so after the boat passes the
Eiffel Tower and turns back east, you give up trying to point out the sights and just let
her nod off on you shoulder.
Catch the train from St-Lazare to your new, quite modest hotel in Asnières, a
suburb just to the northeast of Paris. There’s a hole-in-the wall épicerie just next door –
of the kind vernacularly known as petites arabes – and it stays open late. Buy three white
peaches and cut them up on the desk in your room. Juice like liquor – the best of all
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 123
Still, even here, when you wake up, depression grips you by the throat, having
made inroads, throughout the night, into any residual well-being accumulated during
the previous day, or even a sense of triumph as you drifted off to sleep. This morning,
as you lay in bed, light still pale through the curtains, your situation resolved itself into
an image all the worse for its lucidity. Sometime, in the earliest hours, despair had
breached your room and broken your back. How can you swing your legs out, plant
them on the floor and walk upright? Still you do, and heading for the bathroom, up
comes a bitter, angry belch – a mocking kind of cock’s crow – your stomach’s acid call
of defeat. Lighten up, bro. Enjoy your vacation – vacate! – you’ve bloody earned it. Bravo,
you take a piss. Shower. Girls are still sleep. What to do but head out, walk to the
corner, to the Café Le Rallye. Find a table in the open air. Write what comes.
• • •
After just a few days, she already know what you’ll order.
Just as on the other workday mornings you’ve sat here, the vast majority of
people passing by are headed directly across the square to the SNCF station and trains
to La Defense or St-Lazare. Office workers mostly, walking erect and with
determination, the majority of them white, occasionally someone Afro-français,
sartorially assimilated. At least half the commuters are female. In general, they’re a
well-dressed, propre-looking lot. The men nearly all carry leather satchels, many wear
beige slacks and polo shirts, deliberately casual for the summer – few actual suits. A
good many of the women wear pants, stylishly cut, and the skirts, whether ankle-length
or shorter, are tailored to flatter the wearer’s form. If the look is conformist, at least it
pays tribute to line. Apart from an occasional bright necktie, cardigan or skirt, personal
style here shows up in far subtler variations than it does at home. The same is true of
facial expressions. Externally, almost no one is obviously attempting to stand out.
Their “thing,” if they have one, remains self-contained.
Remarkable – in the fifteen minutes you’ve been sitting here observing the flow,
you haven’t seen more than a few overweight bodies and no one really obese. A
handful of people move with striking grace, but nearly everyone walks with a self-
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 124
the rest of actuality. No oceanic slackness or jerky flailing – the sort of “hey world,
check out my dysfunctionality” body language you see everywhere stateside. Aha –
there’s someone fat at last – a white woman – heading against the trend, not toward, but
away from the train station.
Still, no sense, from all appearances that she’s on a slippery slope of any kind.
Overall, these folks exude a sense of internalized correctness, of doing precisely what
they intend to do, in the way they intend to do it, no more nor less. We are just as we
should be, their attitudes imply. Is this possible? Yet if there is a gun to these people’s
heads, it’s an invisible one.
One figure and face separates out from the crowd and like a heliotrope, your
head involuntarily turns to track with her. Fine, nearly porcelain features, loose,
swinging hair the color of Stephanie Audran’s. A truly exquisite dress, deep red and
fitted, cut high in front and low in back, tiny bone buttons running down to her sacrum.
As the train for St-Lazare pulls into the station, she raises her head slightly but does not
quicken her pace, although several people around her break into a trot. Another train
will come, she telegraphs, but who else could possibly be me?
She’s the one you’ve been waiting to see: her half-smile and unhurried gait
trumping any dictate of the clock. Living proof that trains may run on a schedule, but
time means nothing when set against beauty.
• • •
Asnières, that the big demographic changes since the last time you were here become
apparent. Riding the Metro or just walking about you see far more African, Arab and
Asian faces than you did fifteen years ago. And it’s a more overtly gay town as well,
particularly in the Marais. Which makes the vibe, despite the absence of a strong Latino
presence, feel oddly less exotic – almost familiar. But then, you’ll see, crossing the
street, an African woman, gorgeously dressed, an infant slung across her back. Tall,
lean African men too, wearing skull caps and long robes, some almost as flamboyantly
colored as the women’s dresses. And style, as ever, taken into the stratosphere. In
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 125
rather – on the sidewalk, cellphone pressed to her ear. She’s got to be 5’ 11” even sans
high heels and brilliantly-hued head wrap – the same pattern as her miniskirt. More
material on her head than round her hips. Lord – who’s her couturier? Probably
Frank told you a story once, about a trip he took to Paris with Gloria in 1957.
One of the first 707 flights. Landed at Le Bourget. A whole ‘nother geologic epoch from
now. Gloria got it into her head to make herself a black dress, so she went to Bon
Marché, bought the material and some lace and started in on it using Frank’s late
father’s moustache scissors and the thread and needle from her sewing kit. Every day,
at the restaurant they frequented, Gloria would show Mme her progress, and one
evening, in she walked on Frank’s arm wearing her robe noir. Embraces, kisses. “You
are a true Frenchwoman,” quoth Mme. “On a desert island, we can make a dress – with
Every so often, in different parts of the city – and it kind of jolts your eye – you’ll
see a knot of women, some of them quite young, wearing khimars. Not what you’re
used to down on the farm.
To the Louvre, where you’re in for a shock. Last time you were here, in ’86, work
on IM Pei’s scheme for unifying the entrances and integrating the galleries had
transformed the courtyard between the palace’s wings into a huge excavation site
hidden behind plywood fencing. Now a new global icon, Pei’s glass pyramid, stands at
the center of the Cour Napoleon. It’s the new starting point for the sightline that
extends several miles northeast, through the arch at Carousel, along the Tuilleries, past
the obelisk at Place de la Concorde, down the Champs Elysée, through the Arc de
Triomphe, all the way out to the vast hollowed-out cube of La Défense.
The changes go far deeper than the pyramid’s symbolic value. Pei’s design has
rationalized the acts of entering, circulating within, and leaving the museum –
particularly given the ever-increasing crowds – more radically than you could have
imagined. But the appearance of order has come at a certain cost. Before, the place felt
like a score of collections cobbled together – a mess really, but an interesting one. Now,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 126
from the pyramid, or underground from the Metro stop on rue de Rivoli.
The former, with its sense of abandoning the land of the living for that of the
underworld is disconcerting enough. But the latter approach is truly bizarre. Once out
of the Metro station, one is borne along on a tide of humanity, through a glittering,
crypt-like mall. Your mind leaps to those surviving ground-level passageways not far
from here as the crow flies, but a million miles away in psychic space: those streets
covered over a couple of hundred years ago, enclosed in skylit arcades. These were the
hothouses of consumerism’s first flowering. Then came the Belle Époque and the birth
of the grands magasins, their goods enshrined beneath soaring domes that offered, at
their summits, panoramic views of the city around them.
Now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the commercial action’s gone
troglodyte – sunk below ground to the same level as that of the medieval Louvre, the
fortress buried beneath the renaissance palace. Off to the side, down a perpendicular
passage, one can see the ancient turrets and walls unearthed by the excavation and now
preserved. Keep walking, moved with and by the crowd. To your left and right, the
great displays of luxury goods piled up in the shops seem more like ritual objects for
the dead than objects for use by living women and men.
Ahead, dimly, a well of light. You shuffle along feeling like a steer in a
slaughterhouse designed so as not to panic the animals. The passageway opens out into
the huge light-filled space covered by the pyramid. For all the brightness that spills
through the panes above, the effect is disheartening. Why, the body asks itself, did you
trap me down here?
Even and maybe especially experienced from below, there’s something about the
rigid geometry of the glass canopy that’s fundamentally hostile to the eccentric lines of
the palace wings with their effusions of ornament. It’s as though the pyramid is trying
to coerce the palace into submitting to the worship of a static and rectilinear god – as to
roll back culture from the time of the Sun King to that of the Pharaohs.
As you wait on line to feed your credit card into the ticket machine, it comes to
you in an instant: this place feels like the elevator lobby of the World Trade Center all
over again – Pei used the same strategy in post-modern Paris as Yamasaki did in late
modern New York. Both spaces induce a disconcerting sense of nowhereness. Both do
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 127
in the grave, half out of it, bathed in weirdly brilliant light. Both architects created
illuminated nether-wells – waiting rooms for a people unsure whether they’re alive or
dead. Hallmarks of a culture that, as the saying goes, doesn’t know whether to shit or
go blind. You suppress a momentary impulse to flee up the spiral staircase to ground
level, hovering tantalizingly above.
But the machine’s spit out your card and tickets, so you press forward with the
entrance seekers and finally into Sully, homing in on like a heat-seeking missile on your
icon of icons: the Victory of Samothrace at the summit of her staircase. Off to one side
in a vitrine, incredibly delicate for being half again life-sized, a fragment of her right
hand, the one that held the vanished trumpet to her lips.
You circle round the knot of women vamping for their boyfriends’ cameras in
front the Venus de Milo and take the stairs up into Italian painting. The better part of
an hour spent before the Wedding Feast at Cana – Christ at the center, the only one in the
throng not celebrating, not even alive to the moment, his eyes fixed straight out past the
viewer, a deer caught in the headlights.
When you turn round, you realize you’ve had your back to the Mona Lisa all the
while. She’s too mobbed to contemplate penetrating that crowd, amidst the popping
flashbulbs, for a glimpse of that face imprisoned behind an inch of glass. On then, to
pay homage to Leonardo’s Virgin and Child with St. Anne. And hanging next to them,
pointing heavenward, his smile as redolent of secret pleasure as La Gioconda’s, the
ultimate androgynous, St. John.
• • •
One greater Paris site that will remain unseen: Disneyland. On the walls of
nearly every Metro station, stretching up to the vaultings, an immense poster of the
castle aglow by night and crowned with fireworks:
Paris, ses grandes hommes, ses 7 nains.
Venez vivre la magie.
Paris, its great men, its 7 dwarves.
Come live the magic.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 128
Pretty funny, you have to admit. Though she stares in fascination at all the
Metro posters, Gwen has, thankfully, somehow remained immune to the Great Mouse’s
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