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Keep working through the Book of Margins. Again Jabès offers up that which you
could not name, but which you grasp at in the instant as though you could hold it fast,
like a thing:
Day after day, my writing has consisted in savagely weeding intruding grass and roots;
then in refusing to fertilize my land by slash and burn. …Write to shake off the dust; write at the
…Never have you paid particular attention to dust, yet it is the limit of time abolished.
You write one last time in the dust because you cannot free yourself of words. You still
move within your limits.
…You work in the vineyards of death, but you refuse to die this early.
…Dust! Air spreads its own suffocation. Every grain in the lot has chosen its victim.
• • •
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 183
It begins to come clear that the vast majority of those who died in the trade
center were casualties of a decision made a generation before to create unbroken fields
of rentable space at the price of tremendous structural vulnerability. These buildings
were engineered to resist the pressure of wind and violent impacts, but not the heat of a
Yet something nags and it goes on the great list of unanswerables. Questions of a
certain type one cannot even ask in such an atmosphere. No history of a steel frame
building collapsing from a fire before, even blazes that burned hotter and longer.
Unlike the towers, WTC7 was a “traditional” steel structure, no Achilles heel at the level
of floor joists. So why did that one fail?
And how to account for such incredible pulverization? Like those old novelty
games: what’s wrong with this picture? You were always good at spotting the
anomaly, but here you have no clue. It just doesn’t add up. But one thing’s sure. If
someone wanted war, wanted, in fact, to open up the prospect of eternal war, and usher
in an era of unending fear, then those towers coming down made a lever long enough
to shift the world.
• • •
Social life continues at its feverish, caffeine-driven pitch, but with a new
distinction: we can scarcely bear to look at one another. Smiles more forced than before
9/11, as though a baring of teeth in “friendly” mode might effect a deeper mood shift,
turn a snarl into something else – outweigh the heaviness of shame. Nothing righteous
about what we’re doing. Yet friendly smiles in the street. Friendly fire over there.
Are our smiles of the same or a different sort than those the song evoked back in
the war to end all wars?
and smile, smile, smile…
What’s the use in worrying?
It never was worthwhile…
If we can just smile insistently, relentlessly even, we might yet abolish death, and
history besides and have only victories, only punchings of the air and triumphant crows
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 184
stadium, almost black against the sun. Now soar, Harry, soar! You can do it! Win the
Quidditch cup for Gryffindor!
• • •
You can beat a dead horse. And if you hit it hard enough, you may get it to
bounce upright on its stiffened legs in a semblance of life. Now, how do you get it to
run the Kentucky Derby?
A host of opportunities, breathtakingly missed. Peace, like the lady, vanishes.
• • •
All these years of progress and what have we got: subways with lighting that
makes people of every complexion look like ash.
Behind this mask is the voice we would have to imitate… And the face of another we
would have to tame.
– Gérard Macé, (Leçon de Chinois) in Jabès’s …Margins.
Somewhere between a fingernail and a quarter moon rises ten degrees to the
west of the WTC’s filmy plume.
We feign to be roused by injustice; in fact, we are roused only by what suddenly, for a
moment, disturbs the comforts we enjoy.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 185
The organism moves along rapidly. From a sore throat, to a stretch, to a sigh. It
peers from underneath its hood, takes the sweeping of its fingertips along surfaces for
granted. Brushes with those fingertips a swollen gland on its throat, sits with the toe of
one sneaker pressed up against the other. Takes its hat off, tosses it in the air. Bang! –
shoots into the air in triumph. Bats at piñatas. Fabricates. Cuts and eats what is
fabricated by others, by the earth. Gets used to its swollen tongue. Leans in to
confabulate. Compensates. Shakes its head to clear the senses. Returns from Buenos
Aires. Pays the cabbie through his open window. Mistakes Korean for Chinese.
The organism shifts its weight, becomes conscious for a moment that of its
breathing. It sings along to a corredo, feels discomfort, compassion; it sighs, stretches,
takes off from La Guardia. It experiences itself as oceanic, immeasurable. Folds itself in
half. Runs a tongue over the metal-edged surface of its braces. Worries a loose flap of
skin. Imagines that the burden it carries belongs by right to someone else. Leaps out of
the water. Feels its lungs fill with something, but can’t tell what it is. Shifts its weight.
Waits. You smell macadam, stretch, and see that you’re the road.
An innocent plane passes outside the expected flight pattern. The turbine
whines its assertion overhead. Below, we dolls wait to be blown apart. The indirect
object of the terror the state directs outward is the subjugation of its own subjects.
• • •
Most conveniently forgotten political lesson: you don’t become more intact by
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 186
Will the unacceptable become part of the acceptable?
The void is irrigated with blood.
– Jabès, …Margins
“Everything changed after September 11.” Did it? Or do a myriad of
incremental shifts suddenly achieve recognition in light of a generally acknowledged
before and after? Where would we be without the liminal catastrophe to locate us, to
permit us, like a door opened onto technicolor to recognize that we’re not in Kansas any
Aspects of this new reality – not least the ever-shrinking number of 9/11
fatalities – certainly lends itself to projections of the fantastical. What if it turns out the
three thousand never died in the pulverization of the towers? That they simply failed
to appear at work on the fateful morning, and have been now tracked down by a special
police unit – found living in Belize or some similar paradise?
Out to Sea Cliff for dinner with Katie’s mom. Every bloody place you look,
United We Stand signs, flags up the wazoo.
God Blast America.
Our eyes are watching something, but it surely isn’t God.
Pull quote for an article by Jane Smiley in the Times Magazine: “The pictures of
Afghan women that we have been seeing in the last few days have been beautiful,
moving and an unequivocal good thing.” Each day, official language presses further
into the territory of unmeaning. Does someone write such a sentence – its grammatical
torture so evident – in full possession of their will? Can this prose represent the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 187
face, an act of ritualized submission?
December 19 – Early Evening
Katie picks out a cravat that works with your shirt. Attempt to transition into
teaching mode. Over the years you’ve fallen into the habit of wearing a tie when you
lead Writing X, or meet with individual students. A technique you picked up from Paul
who explained it to you once in terms of transference. Whatever the mechanism, it
seems that this small, formal gesture on your part permits those who study with you to
exercise a greater associative freedom. And to imagine that what they write matters.
Just as you realize that the thin end of your tie is too long and you’ll have to
reknot it, a screech of brakes from downstairs and an enormous crash. You walk into
the livingroom – the best sightlines in the apartment – and look out the window, but
there’s nothing to see. The intersection’s clear. A few cars have pulled over and double
parked along the avenue, but none of them seems damaged. Here’s an EMS van too –
they certainly came quickly enough – but no signs of any emergency treatment in
progress. A moment of cognitive dissonance. How could so violent a sonic event have
produced so little visible result? You’re running late so you don’t spend a lot of time
trying to logic it out. Plus, when you live twenty floors up, there’s a sense of disconnect
from ground level. However loud the bang, since it didn’t shatter your windows and
no further alarms followed, it might as well have happened in Timbuktu.
When you reach the street though, a big Aha! Of course you couldn’t see it from
your living room, the corner’s masked by overhanging trees. On the sidewalk, just a
few yards from the pathway to your door stood a subway entranceway – standard issue
cast iron lantern poles and railings – bolted into the concrete in the era of Edward
Hopper, when this was still a neighborhood of tenements.
You moved here in the early sixties when this development was brand new, and
in the intervening years must have run or walked up and down the subway steps
literally thousands of times, in every conceivable state of mind – once after shaking off
three fellow teenagers who’d surrounded you on the platform and credibly advanced
the notion of throwing you in front of a train if you didn’t fork over your wallet.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 188
entrance remained a fixture of the scene, hardly noticed its own right, a taken-for-
granted constant. Over the years, small changes: its back rail became an armature for
two public telephones and an advertising poster. Most recently, color-coded
globelamps replaced the classic lanterns. Nothing significant enough to alter its basic
Now a large black SUV squats cattycorner atop the wreckage of poles and globes
and railings, covering with its bulk the stairs that, a moment ago in the elevator, you’d
previsualized walking down. There’s a comic touch to the angle of the big vehicle – as
though it had wanted to drive down the stairs but discovered too late it wouldn’t fit in.
A few passersby mill about, intrigued by this spontaneous display of public sculpture.
The driver of the SUV strolls calmly round his creation, detached even, mobile phone
pressed to his ear. “Ah, yeah, well, I’d be there now, but, uh, something came up…”. A
cab’s parked just across 25th Street. The driver stands leaning against it, looking on.
Saw it all, he says: the EMS van was heading west and ran the light. The SUV,
zooming northbound, swerved to avoid hitting it, jumped the curb.
• • •
You return, four hours later to find the wrecked SUV vanished and the subway
entrance encased in a plywood sarcophagus festooned with strips of yellow “caution”
tape. A surviving column, one of four, juts out, its globe shattered. Somehow what
remains of the structure heroically supports the unmarred advertisement: WKTU 103.5
Upstairs in time for late dinner and the 11 o’clock news: on the ninety-ninth day,
the fire in the ruin has finally been put out.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 189
THE MAN AT TABLE 4
December 20, 2001 – December 20, 2003
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 190
Who can count the dust of Jacob?
– Numbers, 20:13
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 191
THE SORRYASS BUSINESS
December 20, 2001 – Le G. – Midafternoon
Conversation with Tobias at the café. He mentions that Sebald was killed last
week in a car crash in England – a daughter, with whom he was driving, seriously hurt.
You can’t help but think: why this one? Why one whose work seemed so poised for
further evolution? And then: well, he pushed matters as far as he could in the time he
had. Was he aware of what he was doing, how he moved the whole framing device:
the idea of what may be told to whom and by whom, and under what circumstances of
telling – of story and remembrance-making – into new relationships, proportions,
asymmetries, units of weight and measure? And in a mode that seemed the inversion
of the post-modern: seamless prose to glide over, radical disjunction beneath, so you
might not notice, until it sneaks up on you, that you’re more than implicated – that the
subject, the subject cyclically shattered and reconstituted, is, or might be, you.
Crossing 25th Street toward home, you notice the johnny pump that got knocked
over the night an SUV jumped the curb and plowed into the subway entrance late last
year still lies on the sidewalk nearby. It’s ridiculous, of course, but your imagination
projects the fireplug as a wounded creature, immobile, helplessly mourning the
smashed railings and lantern posts of its dead companion. Then the civic order freak in
you – the gremlin that lurks inside every New Yorker – kicks in: just wait, someone will
passing thought to dragging the hydrant over to the edge of the curb to minimize the
obstruction, but again, like a New Yorker, leave the job to someone else. Apparently a
knocked-over johnny pump constitutes debris of a different order than a wrecked
subway entrance and therefore gets hauled away by another department, which hasn’t
gotten round to it yet.
• • •
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 192
“What is Sexy in the Wake of September 11?”
• • •
You set up the electric trains of your youth in a circle around the fiberboard case
for your steel drum which, covered in a white cloth, serves as a base for the Christmas
tree. The whole process, even of steel-wooling the rust off the tracks and then
connecting them is of much delight to G. She adjusts the position of the searchlight
mounted on the flatcar so that it shines up on an angle and its rays glance off the
ornaments as the train goes round – the effect particularly striking when you turn the
room lights off. And with wooden blocks, you’ve build a series of arches over the
tracks for the train to pass through.
Someone, perhaps the water department, perhaps an artifact-hunter with a
strong back and a van, has taken away the johnny pump that lay at the boarded-up
Deck the halls. G’wan, deck ‘em.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 193
not always pleasant. As you trudged wearily toward your dorm for a nap before
dinner in a too-early dusk, you made out shape of one of your students approaching on
the only-room-for-one path trodden through the calf-high snow. When you got close
enough, you saw her face flushed with excitement beneath her wool hat. Normally
undemonstrative, she enfolded you in a hug and delivered the news that her
graduating class has voted you commencement speaker in July. So knackered from a
daysworth of teaching, you acknowledged the honor in a perfunctory kind of way and
the two of you maneuvered around one another to continue on your opposite
trajectories. But as you reached the dorm’s slippery porch, you caught an unbidden
lump rising up in your throat. Your reserve shot. Eyes filled. Took some breaths since
tears freeze on the cheeks in weather like this. Phoned Katie and Gwen. They’re happy
at the news, though they really can’t imagine – how could they? – what this means to
Back from the Northeast Kingdom you begin reading William Carlos Williams’s
In the American Grain. The volume nearly leaped off the shelf into your hands at
Rivendell Books, Montpelier’s wonderful second hand bookstore where you invariably
find what you’ve been searching for, whether you knew it or not. A semi-crumbling
New Directions paperback from 1956 with an incredible b/w photo on the cover: what
turns out to be WCW’s open hand, palm up, as though about to receive some offering.
First published in 1925 in what can only be called a hog time for the nation. Which
makes his excoriating tone, his enraged poetics of history all the more immediate. You
have to read each piece several times, first to adapt to the key and cadence. Adamant
Puritan hearts of stone and literalist “reason.” The wages of which we’re paying even
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 194
McCarthy’s reign. No wonder it’s sunk so out of hearing again.
How does arrogance come into the world?
• • •
January 15 – Le G. – Early Morning
German-Jewish Steve has brought his Mercedes into Manhattan for a tune up.
Sits next to you at Table 5. Always bemused, ever detached. Or so he seems. Today
offers up the nugget that Bismarck had declared a special provenance for fools, drunks
and the U.S. of A.
• • •
Four stages of Medieval drunkenness corresponding to the humors:
Lion drunk: choleric, hot and dry; fire. Ape drunk: sanguine, hot and moist; air.
Mutton-drunk: phlegmatic, cold and moist; water. Swine drunk: melancholic, cold and
• • •
A new postcard graces the bathroom racks at Le Gamin: “Even Heroes Need To
Talk.” White on a baby blue background. On the reverse, a toll-free number for “when
you do” (1-800-LIFENET) coupled with the bracing motto: New York Needs Us Strong.
Thus September 11 has delivered the talking cure its ultimate victory via the good
offices of the New York City Health Department
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 195
to Feel Better.” How many slogans can you fit on a four by six inch card?
Exit the WC and turn toward the magazine rack. On the cover of the NY Post a
familiar face you can’t immediately recognize, surmounted by the headline “Ring of
Love.” Read the finer print. The smiling, middle aged blonde woman with pink-cheeks
turns out to be your old client Berry Berenson. She died when her plane hit one of the
towers, and her ring, a strange trinket ornamented with a kind of cross, was apparently
identified by a friend who’d spotted it in a photograph of excavated mementoes
published in a previous edition of Hamilton’s barrel organ. No report on the condition
of the ring bearer, whether dust or something that a sieve would catch.
You knew nothing of Berry’s life these past thirty years. Weren’t even aware that
she’d married Anthony Perkins, and was widowed by him. But back in the grim post-
movement days, you, Danny of the Joe Stalin moustache and the occasional Vince had
renovated her living loft cum photo studio, installed pulleys to hoist her rolls of
seamless paper, and stenciled huge lipstick kisses on the white-painted bricks of her
Berry had been a dream to work for. Cooperative, no attitude, paid on time,
loved to collaborate on design ideas, then left you free to do your work. And she
turned you on to her rolodex of fast and fashionable friends who discovered that
having their painting and plastering done by an ex-heavy revolutionary without
portfolio lent the enterprise a kind of unspoken panache, or as the phrase went: radical
chic. You and Danny and Vince were one jump from being street people in those days,
and the Superstars and rich hippies liked to have you around, gussying up their pads
and making the rough plain, bringing light to the gathering darkness. There must have
been something about you that felt echt – just as the culture was kicking its feet at the
top of the great commodity slide. Though relentlessly apolitical, they could look at you
and recognize a possible self, one that had ascended to unimaginable heights – had in
fact been to the mountaintop – then plunged back into the valley, intact enough still to
embody the tale.
And it came to you, looking at her life-sized ink-on-newsprint face, a generation
aged, that if you had permitted yourself to back then, you might have been attracted to
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 196
But not really.
Well into the month of Janus – god protector of doors and gateways. He begins
as an emissary of light, opens the sky at daybreak and closes it at night, eventually
evolves into a general-purpose deity of beginnings and endings, entrances and exits,
depicted as looking both toward the past and future. It is this double faced image of
him that appears on Roman coins. A temple to Janus was built near the forum in Rome.
According to legend, the temple doors were kept open in wartime and locked only in
times of peace – only four times from the earliest kings until the reign of Augustus.
Now he rules over the end of one year and the beginning of another. And then
there are Janitors – persons who once presided over comings and goings.
You’re so out of time, that despite the date, it takes you this long to realize it’s
January, and that whoever it was destroyed the towers blew our doors off.
• • •
Pane e cioccolato. Meet W. for afternoon coffee. It is only with him and a few
others that you can share astonishment and nausea over the degradations of the
moment, which pile up like the snow we so infrequently get here any more. You talk
about Baudrillard’s L’espirit du terrorism – his placid, measured, refusal to be pulled into
an ideological game.
W. says that a Der Spiegel report on Mohammad Atta, a.k.a. “the Hamburg
Terrorist,” referred to him and the other September 11 hijackers as “murderers.” W.
wrote the editor requesting the name of the court they’d been convicted in. Of course
he has received no reply.
• • •
Amazing that you didn’t write this down before. Back in November last year,
Katie opened the Visa bill and found this astronomical charge from your ISP for hosting
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 197
reassured her, they probably added some zeroes by accident. But no, the charges were real.
Between September 11 and the month’s end, over three hundred fifty thousand visitors
had clicked seven million times through the pages of the Living Archive of New York’s
Calm in the face of a $10,000 claim – supremely so since there was no way you
could pay it, you began to negotiate a lesser fee with your webhost and found to your
surprise that without much ado, they dropped the charges altogether. Your site wasn’t,
after all, a profit-making venture, and the inclination toward spontaneous generosity
still hung in the air. You also learned how to log in and monitor the visits, saw for
yourself, in bar graph form, the virtual seismology of the “event”: flat, flat, flat, then an
enormous tower of hits. A small step down for October and a gradual descent to a new,
much higher plateau. Still running at a rate of several thousand visits per day, whereas
before 9/11, you got maybe a thousand a month.
The numbers contain a kind of brute evidence. But of what? You’d love to know
what passes through the minds of the clickers. No gauges for that.
Spent the morning trying to unlock a frozen heart. Looked at kilims yesterday
and other gorgeously patterned carpets – contemporary ones that have the feel of wool
mixed with silk. Now to work. Run your hand over the cover Katie made for your
iBook. Rough fabric, like a tapestry. A frontier scene – a town with a saloon, a corral
and cowboys riding broncos and unexpectedly lush deciduous trees. Find a way to
weave yourself in.
• • •
The target is not Osama bin Laden. That is a projection. There is, inside us all, a
little fellow with a musket, standing on a high peak, looking out trying to reconcile with
the infinite. When that little fellow is bombed off his mountaintop, and comes down
into the valley to sit on a couch and watch TV, the war will be won.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 198
Infinite hate for the infinite.
• • •
Want to be the Bodhisattva of the Last Train Out.
• • •
How to see without going mad?
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