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- January 20 – Central Park – Late Morning
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Twins, twins, twins. Iroquois beadwork at the Museum of the American Indian.
Here Skywoman walks the Great Turtle’s back, her movement expressed in paired,
curved, scrolling lines. When these lines face in opposite directions, they suggest the
duality of twins, and the struggle of life to achieve a balance – to negotiate a path
between opposing forces. On one beaded bag (Seneca?) around 1830, two male figures
joined at the hip: Skyholder and Flint, twins sons of Skywoman’s daughter. In certain
tellings, the brothers are of two, quite opposite minds. As Skyholder walks the earth he
creates life-sustaining plants and animals. Flint sows poisonous versions of all good
Up at the Met, a Bifacial Head from Easter Island. Two human faces made of
painted barkcloth over a wooden frame dating from the 1840s. Joined back-to-back, the
faces are about half life-sized, and are said to depict Rau-hiva-aringa-erua (“Twin Two-
Faces”), a legendary warrior and son of a chief. Oral tradition has it that during a
battle, Rau-hiva-aringa-erua’s rear face saw an enemy approaching and asked the front
face to turn around and look. The front face refused and began arguing with the rear
face. Both ignored the enemy, who seized the opportunity to go in for the kill.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 199
Snowed last night, though less than predicted, as often seems the case of late.
Generally the dire warnings of Huracán and flood manifest as garden-variety overcasts,
sunshowers, or straight-up blue sky days. Nonetheless, enough white stuff came down
to justify taking Gwen and her friend Daphne – who strangers usually imagine as twin
sisters – up to Central Park to see what could be done with Katie’s childhood Flexible
Flyer brought in recently from the house in Sea Cliff, its rusty blades cursorily steel-
wooled to a semblance of sheen.
So much for intentions. New York evermore resembles Maine in that you can’t
get there from here. Had to take the downtown train to change for the uptown, then
got off at 59th Street because all the uptown trains were going express to 145th Street. It
would have been nearly as easy to go to Van Cortland park where they have some real
hills, or the ferry to Staten Island if they’d open up the Fresh Kills landfill to winter
At Columbus Circle, snowcapped, its steelwork shrouded, New York’s newest
twin-towered folly riseth apace. The name Time Warner itself sounds like a B-movie
victim’s dying gasp: No time – warn her! And what to make of the acronym AOL?
Absence Of Liberty. Almost Outa Luck. From which it’s no great associative leap to
AWOL: America Without Legitimacy. A Wealth Of Lack. A Waste Of Lucre. A Wash Of
Lacrimae. Here comes the AOL Time Warner Center like a bat out of hell, someone gets
in our way, someone don’t feel so well – a creature that, like the WTC used to, projects
plenty of aggression, but knows no hint of playfulness, nor irony.
Yet these towers appear less as direct descendants of the trade center than a
bizarre mutation of the older race of residential twins that processes up along Central
Park West: The San Remo, The Century, The Majestic, The El Dorado, The Beresford –
standard-bearers from the glory days of the ultra-swank Manhattan apartment.
If you were to ride an elevator up to the topmost I-beam on a clear day, could
you see, as Steinberg did for his famous New Yorker cover, over the foothill Rockies and
all the way to Hollywood? Look south. How shrunk to dwarf scale the derelict slab of
the Huntington Hartford gallery – evermore precariously holding down the circle’s six
o’clock. How like an ancient ancestor it seems, set next to these massive newcomers.
Perhaps it’s the skeletal look of the Park in the midwinter light, but the city is
beginning to feel more like an animal, or if not precisely an animal, than some sort of
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 200
promontories constitute its resident flea circus.
These days, one never knows which parts of the Park will be fenced off, allegedly
for the protection of some fragile seedlings, or the delineation of a lawn to be admired
from afar but not trodden on. Walking there feels more and more like negotiating a
labyrinth than rambling across a variegated landscape. Everywhere one is guided, lest
one stray. But amazingly enough, Cedar Hill remains open to sledding. And ringing
the treetrunks, bales of hay, just in case. Not like in your day, when kids would
regularly plow into the trees, then complete the adventure with a quick trip to Flower
Fifth Avenue Hospital – now a palatial warren of condominiums. But the hay is a
lovely, elegant solution – a safety measure that smacks of good fun, of the country come
Almost everyone – and there’s a horde of us – sails down the slope on a plastic
vehicle, but there are a few vintage sleds in the crowd, and they perform wondrous
well, for they can steer and go great distances if you’re lying flat on your stomach. G. &
Daphne are the ultimate size age for this. Nine – the charmed moment before the onset
of the great disconcertion. Plus the sled fits them to a tee, and they insist on shooting
down together, over and again, a dozen times or more – one in front steering, the other
holding fast to the steerer. Then they get more aerodynamic, take turns lying down on
top of one another, their little human sandwich flying fast and long, jouncing over the
hump of the snowcovered path, sliding partway up the gentler slope on the far side.
There’s just enough ground coverage to make it work. This is the day for sledding.
Good thing you didn’t wait until tomorrow, Martin Luther King Day, though the kids
are off from school. By then, given the traffic and the thaw, this slope will be mostly
muddy grass. Sky as clear and blue as the day of the trade center planes. Vapor trails
crossing one another to the north in an arching diaphanous X. Gwen & Daphne profess
to be vastly thirsty, take a break to scrape snow of the fir branches and eat it out of their
mittened hands. Then zoom down again.
At the summit of the hill, a gaggle of parents and extended family members give
and receive snowballs, romp with dogs, build snowmen. But for the chirping of cell
phones this could be a generation past. The moms behave like moms, circumspect and
optimistic, light yet solid. The dads act bluff and physical, sliding with their sons,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 201
as not to miss the game. Anyone here but white people? Ah, there’s a black man, a
white woman and their daughter, who’s verging on teenage. “Give me a good push,”
she says like a proper princess, and dad complies. Down she goes, sitting erect, not
holding on, hands elevated slightly. Dad tracks with his camcorder. Amazingly, she
rides it out. How long will we be allowed to pretend that race is a dead letter?
Just enough snow to cover the ground. Hay bales, just in case. A hilltop full of
upper east side weekend far niente. Almost as if never.
• • •
Has your writing changed much since you began these notes? It’s likely that it
has. At first you narrated from a place of isolation, of internal exile. Observed without
much feeling. Which made sense because like most folks, you would rather feel less of
everything than more pain. And then too, nothing big seemed at stake. So you laid
down a series of dots without investing much in how they might connect. Beneath your
city’s clamor, its stasis was palpable, its pacification, its sickly complacency. Bluntly
put, the city had become an indifferent lover, a partner always looking past you as you
danced, fascinated by its own slick moves, too hip for history. Now it vibrates from
within, begins to shudder. Reveals a pulse with a deeper energy. It is coming active
with its fear. Does it start to learn that there’s more to the meal than eating? There’s the
digesting too. Let them eat flags.
• • •
It’s a paradox, and an unholy one at that. There isn’t a lot you wouldn’t give –
up to and including your own existence – to have the people who died when the WTC
was hit come back to life. As much as you love G. & K., as little as you want to stop this
adventure of the senses midway through, you’re pretty certain you would strike such a
deal, if there were anyone or anything to bargain with. Yet for all that, you still believe
the trade towers were an awful thing – like knives stuck in the side of the city – and
you’re glad they’re gone.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 202
This is the Y train to 403rd Street.
• • •
Do questions and answers not come out of a mad desire to know ourselves, a relentless
determination to knock down the walls around us in the hope finally to win out over silence – as
if we could, with our voices alone, fill the abyss? Jabès, Book of Margins, p. 187.
The exhibition “A New World Trade Center” at the Max Protetch Gallery.
Approaching from the east, you cross Tenth Avenue and then under the rusting
elevated High Line, passing a minimalist tea room. Opening the gallery door you
emigrate from the embodied De Chirico of the street into the white order of Gallery
World. Directly facing you as you enter is a series of large photographs of the WTC:
scale models and actual buildings, interspersed so it’s hard to tell which is which unless
you look closely. Balthazaar Korab took them between 1966 and 1978. Taken in ‘66, the
same year as demolitions on the site began, one image, an angle from above, shows
Yamasaki full figure and wearing a suit. Framed by his towers, he looks down toward
the plaza and smiles. The plywood on which Yamasaki stands would be the Hudson
River. His feet straddle one of several piers, projecting out from the shoreline.
Rendered with simple, cosmetic perfection, the docks the trade center landfill buried are
miraculously preserved in wood and plaster. No ships.
The exhibit itself – what a horror show. The proposals as a whole present a
mixed bag of aesthetic capitulations. Only one possesses real vitality: Eytan Kaufman’s
scheme for a pedestrian bridge from the World Financial Center to Jersey City – two
strands of walkway bowing into one at the center – connected to a World Citizen’s
Center on the old WTC footprint. Referencing the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge serves as a
platform for a mix of commercial and residential structures.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 203
What most of the programs reveal, in their relentless insistence on new
construction, is how badly the whole area needs building down. Is it possible to hold
the images of people leaping to their deaths, and the collapse of the towers in a kind of
sovereign, protected emotional space while considering the possibility that we ought to
continue the unbuilding until we arrive at a Lower Manhattan we can reclaim as
habitable ground – as a fit place for the living and the dead?
That said, if you can stomach the stentorian pretensions, the barely disguised
grandiosity, the unseemly presumptions of projecting, before even a breath can be
drawn what should be done, you’ll return and study the proposals again.
Just before you leave, take a copy of the show’s promotional postcard. Another
image by Balthazaar Korab. Again Minoru Yamasaki framed by a large model of his
towers. But this time we look up at him as he stands on a metal construction ladder,
leans against its railing, fingers lightly clasped before him. Again he looks down at the
plaza. His weight rests on his right leg, while his left foot is placed on the rung above –
the summit of the ladder. He has been recorded in the act of climbing to the top,
pausing to contemplate what lies below.
Around 9 o’clock the evening of the day the trade towers fell, G. got up on the
stepladder that stands beneath your kitchen window. She rested her arms against the
sill and looked out over the city to the south. You turned off the lights and she stared
toward the plume of dust and smoke and said: “I'm beginning to see the new view.”
Today, reaching and pulling and sliding on the Nordic Track, you look toward
the V of buildings that gesture toward the spot where the towers stood. Now it is
possible to see what was hiding behind them all these years: the trapezoidal forty-
something-story black slab of the former Bankers Trust Plaza, now Deutche Bank and
abandoned – damaged beyond reclamation. The upper part of the building’s north face
has become a backdrop for a huge American flag, perhaps a hundred and fifty wide by
seventy five feet high, dead center above the nadir of the V. Slightly higher than the
flag from this perspective, and to its right, another symbol vies for dominance on the
skyline: the pinkish red neon umbrella that day or night announces the presence of the
Traveler’s Insurance building, as though its height and mass were somehow inadequate
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 204
margin of the Lower Manhattan V. Forming the eastern slope of the wedge is Liberty
Plaza, a black slab Zeckendorf (père) monstrosity, designed for, but never occupied by
Just north of Liberty Plaza, and ten or so stories shorter than its neighbor, a
slender tower, the Millennium Hotel. Both these structures were, astonishingly, spared
in the massive implosion just across Church Street at “Ground Zero.” From your
twentieth story aerie, three miles to the northwest, the formal relationship between
Liberty Plaza and the hotel is such that under certain conditions, the light reflecting off
the western face of the Millennium creates a weird optical illusion. The hotel tower
ceases to read as a building at all, and appears rather as a void space cut through
Liberty Plaza’s tenebrous mass – the whole effect weirdly reminiscent of the hollowed-
out Arc de la Défense in Paris.
Gwen, for her part, is less preoccupied with sightlines. At one point during post-
9/11 media frenzy, you mentioned to a reporter her observation on “the new view.”
Published somewhere or other, a professor at a midwestern University was so struck by
the remark, he emailed to ask if he could quote it. You consulted Gwen on the matter.
Would this be OK with her? Sure, she said, but she wanted to elaborate – to make sure
that it wasn't just the cityscape she was talking about. What she’d meant went deeper.
“After the smoke cleared, that would be our future. And I couldn't have reached my
hand out and said ‘stop,’ because the world went on.”
• • •
them to be forever reborn in their daring. Jabès, Book of Margins, p. 197.
• • •
Through terrorism the extreme duality transmogrifies into singularity.
Enormous economy. Astronomical cost.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 205
True ventriloquism is achieved at the point where the dummy believes it’s doing
• • •
Proverbs written into the mind of Ponce de Léon:
Where the ocean goes
The sand should follow
For wolves’ flesh
Dog’s teeth are needed
…American Grain, p. 43.
false pleasures, manufactured just in time. The world is full of actualities so vivid that
you’ve grown an entirely new part of your brain, a small bilateral peanut that triggers
an avalanche of narcotic gloss which coats it all in simulation. The world is full of
agonies, real and imagined, but it overflows in adaptations.
Mark and Bruce enter, assume their parallel stations at tables 10 and 11, open
their (nearly) twin laptops. Passing by on your way to the loo, you fall into
conversation and Mark lets go a quip so fluidly epigrammatic you write down at once:
‘Tis no drama but in the doing.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 206
Osama Bin Aladdin: “Collapse sesame!”
When you stepped into the elevator this morning, your nostrils were assaulted
by a truly vile scent. You could only think of a virulent fart. But the smell lingered, and
though the noisesomeness of it carried a different quality, you couldn’t help but
remember an incident in the same elevator nearly forty years ago when these buildings
were still raw and young. Then, you’d gotten on with Bea, she on her way to work and
you to school, accompanied by a neighbor from your floor, a tiny woman named Mrs.
Fishbien. The reek hit first and then your three pairs of astonished eyes, beheld the
button panel caked in semi-solid shit. You immediately flew to the intellect, wondering
who had plastered it there and why – and even tried to imagine what sort of container
they had carried it in, and how it seemed far more crap than any one person could
generate in one go, but Mrs. Fishbien, who had a good sixty years on your thirteen, had
a quite different reaction. Nearly collapsing against the farthest wall, she clapped her
hand over her mouth and nose, and half moaned, half screamed: “Oy! Human dirt!”
Your mother’s face grew pale, but she remained stoic.
None of you attempted to push the Ground button, but Ground is where the
elevator defaults to if another floor’s not pressed, so you rode down and on the path
outside the building met Steve, the security guard and told him what had happened,
and when you got home from school the mess was gone, and nothing like it ever
occurred again, at least not in your building. But the event’s singularity, and the
anonymous virulence of the gesture impressed you powerfully. Someone out there had
come inside, full of hate for your building – your brand new building – and by
extension, for you. Someone was angry in a way you weren’t familiar with at all, quite
unlike your father’s spontaneous rages, and this someone had chosen for private and
undisclosed reasons to attack your elevator in this particular way in their own
inscrutable moment. Put crudely, the shit was warm, but the blood was cold. Yet there
was something very direct and economical about what had been done – an eloquent act,
which no amount of speculation as to motive could ameliorate or contain. But there
was no way to avoid connecting this act, however impersonal, with your own presence
in that place and moment, and circumstances.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 207
It took years before you found yourself studying slum clearance, by which time
the name Robert Moses meant something entirely different to you than when you were
a kid, dimly aware of him as a distant, mythic figure. You don’t remember telling
yourself any sort of story back then, in 1962 when you moved in, about how your
building had gotten there – you were just so relieved to not be living in the East Village
any more and in awe at the luxury of having your own, huge, sleek, smoothly plastered
modern room in which to be an American Boy. You were, in fact, the first person to live
the space bounded by those four walls. No history, apart from the fugitive ones of the
builders. And you spent uncounted hours gazing out your wide window over the low-
rise valley toward the mountains of Lower Manhattan.
So when as an adult, you came by the knowledge that a whole perfectly useful
neighborhood had been bulldozed to make possible your eagle’s lair, you gained a
tantalizing thread of causality to cling to: a fine line drawn between displacement and
the angry flinging of a bucket or a basinful of shit. But like a tug on a fishing line that
lets you know they’re biting, this tantalizing almost-knowledge gets reeled back in with
the worm gone, as though there’d never been any bait on the hook at all.
There are days when, on your brisk walk to the café, your mind races ahead of
you physically, arrives before you, wants to explode on the page. Deborah comes over
to ask what you want. On the tip of your tongue, an order for a “verb omelets.”
• • •
Look up from work. A group of five retarded young men from the Chelsea
Residence walk past the café. The tallest wears a knit hat appliquéd with an FBI logo.
You burst out laughing, nearly spew your café au lait. From her post near the register,
Deborah looks over to see if you’re alright, and you nod that you’re fine, if a little
abashed. Some jokes only live an instant – can never be told.
As Bea used to say, off the old radio show, “T’aint funny McGee.”
• • •
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 208
9:30 p.m.: a Columbia architecture prof calls. She’s organizing a conference
there on the World Trade Center. Wants to know if you’d participate in a panel
tomorrow afternoon. She is mortified that, despite having assigned Divided… for her
course in the Politics of Space and knowing of its induction into the classics section of
the Avery Library, you were “somehow” left off the roster of invited participants.
Embarrassed too that what got her off the dime was a call from Marshall B. to the effect
that you would almost certainly want to participate if asked and that your exclusion
would be unconscionable. She offers you a ten minute slot in an already crowded panel
that includes not one critical voice, but features a slide show of the WTC’s construction
and nostalgic reminiscences.
You respectfully decline. The timing of the panel conflicts with a writing tutorial
for a student who travels two and a half hours every three weeks to meet with you. The
professor sounds relieved, and you wonder why. It is only after you say goodnight and
put the receiver back in its cradle that you realize what an embarrassment you must be
to those who are now in charge of creating a post-mortem discourse around the WTC.
If you were to appear physically among them, how much more difficult it would be to
pretend that they had cared a whit about the WTC, or thought, even for a New York
second about what those buildings meant, before they came crashing down.
• • •
WCW, “Red Eric,” In The American Grain.
You try to imagine what it would be like to have written the cultural history of
the buildings whose destruction served as the flashpoint for… you can’t imagine.
Yet it is so immediately forgotten, and now too, just a few weeks ago – you don’t
even recall how many, perhaps three, perhaps six – the airplane bound from Kennedy
and full of Dominicans fell out of the sky. First the engine landed on the apron of a gas
station, then the rest crashed into some houses in Queens on a morning just as
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 209
word that this calamity was accident pure and simple – not terrorism – and not a word
since about the cause.
Williams says: “We make no right use of our disasters.”
It was in John Sanford’s published correspondence with Williams that you first
heard of …Grain. Sanford says he read it once and that was enough, the influence was
True enough, Sanford appropriated Williams’s tonality and many of the
particulars of Columbus’s fictive voyage log – the foundation of all future American
deception – straight out of …Grain and plunked it down in People From Heaven.
Plagiarism? Close to, but the contexts are so different that they read as essentially
distinct texts. And Sanford cranked up the Discoverer’s mendacity and cynicism more
than one notch.
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