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- April 11 – Le G. – Early Morning
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Two evenings ago went to Shahid’s memorial down at NYU. A tape of him
You looked up the poem afterward, marveled at the variations and how they
resonate, because to some extent one has no idea what they mean:
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. You can’t forgive me.
I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.
Earlier that day you discussed the once, future and present World Trade Center
with a class of undergraduates at Galatin. Amazing. They’d all read your book, or had
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 229
teaches it, asked you – in his own way – the question you most often hear, in variously
shaded forms: what should be done down there? What should be built? What should “they”
build? Again you said I don’t know –the three magic words – went on to talk about the
process of mourning without flying into action. Of waiting to find out what is needed.
Of dreaming into the space for a year minimum before trying to think or plan. If action
could be held off that long, what else might not be done? Or not done. Shahid again:
You can’t ask them: Are you done with the world?
This morning, Saturday, at the café, Bronwyn handed you a book she’s reading
for her dissertation, David Abram’s, The Spell of the Sensuous. Not the usual jargon, she
said. You thumbed through pages, came to a chapter epigraph:
over the tribe’s lands to the US government.
Then walking afterward, it came to you: the site might be asking for three
presences, three entities. Nothing more.
That day, when you were talking with the students, you found yourself asking
the difference, in psychological value, between the image of towers toppling over and
disintegrating where they stand.
WTC: all columns, no vaulting. Details lie. Massive lateral supports below
ground. Superstructure curtain wall. Ogive: a diagonal rib of a Gothic arch; a pointed
arch. Keep to your book, read what Michelet has to say:
when it strives to open in the twelfth century. This eye of the Gothic arch is
the sign by which the new architecture achieves its identity. The old art,
worshipper of substance, was identified by the temple’s material support,
by the column, whether Tuscan, Doric or Ionic. Modern art, child of the
soul and the mind, had for its principle not form but physiognomy – the
eye; not the column, but the vault; not the full but the empty. In the twelfth
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 230
walls, like the solitary of the Thebaid in a granite cave, is entirely
withdrawn into itself; it meditates and dreams. Gradually it advances
toward the outside, it reaches the external surface of the wall. It radiates at
last into lovely mystic roses, triumphant with celestial glory. But the
fourteenth century had no sooner passed than these roses change; they are
transformed into flamboyant figures; are they flames, hearts or tears?
How to sacrilize, after the collapse, a fragile twin of fortress towers, one
pretending to a transmission spire without a prayer of fooling anyone.
The day is as the weatherman predicted, “partly cloudy.” Rapid, unpredictable
shifts of sun and shadow through the Gamin window make it nearly impossible to see
the book, much less type this.
Some of the inhabitants of the Harry Potter books are fascinating, ambiguous
little characters called House Elves who exist in a state of exquisite discomfort. These
creatures possess great lemur-like eyes and are bonded servants of well-to-do wizard
families, for whom they perform all manner of domestic tasks with equal measures of
diligence and transparency. Yet beyond their drive to serve loyally, the elves are
goaded by an urge that they sometimes cannot suppress to speak out on matters of
conscience. When dark forces threaten Harry, a House Elf who knows of the plot, risks
terrible punishment to warn him. But because speaking independently is tantamount to
a betrayal of the wizard family to which they are bound, the Elves also undertake to
punish themselves, even as they struggle to articulate a truth. They box their own ears,
slam their fingers in drawers, beat their heads against walls, in the course of spilling the
beans. This tortured form of expression reminds you of nothing so much as the
language of the New York Times. Entailed to the bourgeoisie, the paper nonetheless
blurts out, in a high squeaky voice, the very things it knows it ought not say.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 231
Spring’s sprung and all across town, hosts of beautiful young women sashay
down the street, showing off the lack of explosives strapped round their waists.
Choppers again. Part of the terror complex now is hearing turbines, or just
looking up and seeing a plane taking some weird flight path over the city. And the
choppers hovering, sitting in the air, sometimes in two and threesomes – a presumably
strategic deployment – often for hours. Before they vanish. Then, with the same cryptic
intentionality, they reappear, hovering in a new configuration, over another parcel of
• • •
Everywhere in the news, the terrifying face of Condoleezza Rice. What makes
her mask so frightening are the features, so delicate and finely formed, yet distorted by
a powerful rage. The National Security Advisor is bursting with fury because Hugo
Chavez has been restored to power in Venezuela and she thought she’d got rid of him.
At the café, Eric B. observes that ideas can make a person ugly.
• • •
Powell journeys to Ramallah to tell Arafat: “It’s showtime” – this quoted in the
morning Times. In the accompanying photo, the two men confront eachother in a
crowded, fluorescent-lit hallway – Arafat’s compound? – barely a foot’s distance
separating their noses. The General looks down at the President from the better part of
a head’s advantage, but Arafat smiles, holds up one hand in an odd gesture, thumb and
index finger pressed together as though feeling a very particular substance, perhaps
granular. Each wears a small enameled flag pinned to his left lapel. Red, green, white
and black. Red white and blue. A host of unidentified men press in toward them, and
toward the photographer. All of them look at Powell, but each wears a distinct
expression, some mix of questioning and suspicion, as though he were the Delphic
oracle, but one who’d better come up with the right answer. The same sort of almost
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 232
of something banal, catastrophic or wondrous? Was the missed communication
potentially life-changing or a just a misdialed number? Beneath the picture of Arafat
and Powell, above the caption in tiny letters, the photo credit: Palestinian Authority via
Associated Press. Here, write minutely, the politics of territorialization appear on Page
One: in full color and read all over. Fit to print, even if in order to read it you have to
take your glasses off and bring the broadsheet nearly to your nose.
Lacking a true spring, we body-slam into summer. Three days of temperatures
in the ‘90s. A disassociation walking the streets between the sight and odor of the
erupting blossoms and the sweltering heat. Which is the real signifier of what? Kelly,
your Chinese doctor tells you that the body knows it is spring. Just outside your
building, as you walked out, a gardener dousing the sunbaked tulips.
Gwen has no problem with any of this. Delighted she can wear her capris and
shorts, as she is by the blooming of her cherry tree – the one that JFK planted at your co-
op’s dedication ceremony on the lawn between 24th and 25th Streets off Eighth Avenue.
Gwen says that when she wakes up on these overripe mornings, it “feels like France.”
You take a bite of croissant. Look across at the clock. 8:35 a.m. and you feel a
sudden impulse to see her, to watch her run up the steps and into school. You cover
your coffee with your saucer, tell Cathy you’ll be right back and trot a half-block to
where the parents and kids are converging on PS11.
Stand at the steps and look east toward Eighth Avenue. Wave to a dozen people.
There’s Alan, dressed in his suit for work. Nice tie you call. He holds a daughter’s hand
in each of his: Julia, Gwen’s classmate in his right, and no-longer-so-little Sarah in his
left. On some days you and Alan intersect on the street, and talk for a few minutes
before he heads downtown to his job as an attorney for DC-37 which is headquartered
in a building right by Ground Zero. Invariably he wants to talk about the WTC, keeps
nudging you to write op-eds advocating human-scale development of the site. One
morning last week he leaned confidingly in to tell you that on September 10, he’d seen
“security, FBI guys, you name it – all over the place.”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 233
No palaver with Alan today. Instead, you fall into a conversation with one of the
two Trinidadian Kelvins, both from Port of Spain, both fathers of PS11 kids, this Kelvin
the shorter, and a Calypsonian. He’s wearing a gorgeous deep blue shirt covered in
sailing ships. You scan down the block, for a sight of Gwen and Katie, looking to spot
the bright red shirt Gwen put on before you left, or perhaps Katie’s cap, appliquéd with
sequined elephants – from Nepal? – bobbing among the approaching heads. Kelvin
tells you about raising his son and daughter on his own, about his childhood: bicycling
to get food, feeding the hogs before school, feeling so tired by the time he got there that
he just wanted to lay his head down and sleep, and thinking all the time: I want to sing
listeners to “do the right thing,” have respect for the earth, don’t destroy the soil, or else
“Nicodemus will get you.”
By now the sun has shifted from behind the water tower of the so-called luxury
apartment building on Eighth just north of 21st Street and you find yourself standing in
a flood of light and heat. You realize that G. & K. must have come early, before you
arrived – odd because usually you have to hustle to make it to school on time and more
often than not, get there just under the wire. Well, it’s not the margin that counts. ‘long
as you make the last train out.
Normally you’d walk Kelvin down the block to Ninth, but you’re still lingering,
and bid him a good day just as the taller Kelvin, writer, scientist and old friend, comes
tripping, almost prancing down the steps, stylish in shorts, and wrapped in an easy
conversation with J., mother of his child. You wave to one another. His dreads bounce
euphorically: get behind me gravity. Kelvin and J. head east, and you turn west, back to
they got to school way early. Everything’s fine, just fine. Yet your heart’s still in your
mouth. Well not precisely. Somewhere around your trachea. Katie’s just downloaded
a list of French acronyms off the web. Now you’ll have plenty of vernacular phrases to
study for your vacation in July. You tell her the only French acronym you know is CRS.
Not sure exactly what it stands for: Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité or something like
that, but in any case it means the nasty riot cops. Melinda glides across the front
window, steps through the door. You wave to her, but she doesn’t see you back here in
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 234
glances, half puzzled, half expectant at your notebook and coffee cup, then sits down at
Ring off with Katie and head over for greetings and small talk. You confirm that
it’s still cool for Gwen to spend Saturday eve. at her house, so you and Katie can have
dinner with friends. Sure, it’s fine. But now she asks if Gwen can come with her to DC
that day. DC? Sure, why not? “Would you be afraid?” she asks. Afraid of what? you
think, Gwen going on a jaunt with M. to DC – why no, it sounds like fun. Then it hits you:
Melinda is talking about taking Gwen down with her on a bus to the peace
demonstration. The demo – shit – you’d blanked out it was this Saturday. You hear
yourself blurt a bunch of words about Gwen having the rest of her life to be teargassed,
you don’t want her starting at age nine, and how Ashcroft makes John Mitchell look
like Ghandi. Melinda’s not quite processing your emphatic protestations. Says she
doesn’t think it’ll turn ugly. Is she also thinking that it’s best to get kids into protest and
conflict early on – inoculate ‘em? Her face is a mask, so you can’t tell. You just can’t
imagine letting Gwen go to a potentially violent demo without you. Not sure you’d
want her to go period. You realize that for months now, years possibly, you’ve lived in
a state of red alert punctuated by unrestoring sleep.
You return to Table 4 and Cathy comes over as you’re wolfing down your
croissant. Can she refill your cup? She thanks you again for helping her take the chairs
off the tabletops when you arrived that morning – they’d just opened the place and
were running late. It’s always been hard for you to sit and watch other people work.
You say no thanks on the second coffee, tell her it’d make you too buzzy. You have to
choose your words carefully, slow down and enunciate with Cathy because judging
from her affect you’d think she understands more English than she does. “Ah,” she
says, “you don’t want to be like Speedy Gonzalez.” Yes, that’s it. She’s Korean, grew
up in France. Speedy Gonzalez. Yes, that’s the common referent.
Tobias comes into the café bearing a large padded envelope containing notes on
a script you’re collaborating on, copies of the keys to his office and home, several recent
New Yorkers, one with an article on Ashcroft. He’s flying to Germany today to find
millions – millions! – for his script development company. In a few moments you’ll
follow him into the gathering heat. Yanni, Cathy’s wait-partner pops his soundtrack to
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 235
recognize the lyrics to “Big Rock Candy Mountain” – the hobo Land of Cockaigne
where there’s more of everything sweet and desirable than can be described in words,
where work is forbidden and he who sleeps longest is paid the most. The song ends
with a coda:
Picture on the front page of the NYT: bulldozers operating in a pit, clearing a
site, people standing round amidst copious rubble. Another body recovered from
Ground Zero? You take off your specs so you can actually see the photo, read the
caption. Bifocals are just around the corner. Not New York – it’s Jenin. Many-cratered
city of the West Bank. What a lovely sound to the word Jenin. A name fit for a
beautiful girl child.
Morning. Heat spell’s broken. Some solid sleep for a change. You dream, or
hear in your dream the sound of a freight train whistle and realize it’s not coming from
across the river but from the tracks that run up Eleventh Avenue. How silly, you
dream-think, to imagine they ever built a High Line. You ought to know better, even in
a dream. And to think, so many people used to be killed crossing the tracks so
frequently, they nicknamed it Suicide Alley. But now, as you stand on the sidewalk, the
trains rumble past sedately. It seems a much safer and more humane place than in
You wake up. Of course there are no tracks there anymore. And it was never
called Suicide Alley. Your dream remembered wrong. You rifle through your New
York books looking for the reference, finally in desperation call Frank J. He tells you to
check the WPA Guide. And there it is on page 175: Death Avenue, once so dangerous to
traverse, the railroad sent “cowboys” ahead with signal flags to warn of the oncoming
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 236
Afternoon. Walking home, you spot a half-scattered pile of New Yorker
magazines discarded curbside. Relics of the bygone world. At the top of the heap, the
September 17, 2001 issue, which despite its date, was circulated prior to 9/11. What a
bizarre cover! In vibrant tones of green, purple and black, there’s the Statue of Liberty
done up as Victorian fetishist’s dream doll. A corset nips her waist and pushes her
bosom up so severely that her torso assumes the shape of a valentine heart. Her eyes at
once pop out and cross above apoplectically rouged cheeks, her mouth reduces to a
sharp intaking “O!” Liberty’s jaw disappears behind erupting breasts. In her extremis,
her fingers splay out in spikes like those on her crown – she’s lost her grip on her torch.
Our Lady’s other hand is empty. If it ever carried the tablet of Independence, this has
dropped from sight. Beads of sweat leap from her brow. What distresses her so?
Modernity itself. Or at any rate its iconography. For the corset laces that bind and
distort her so turn out to be the cables of a suspension bridge – its roadbed streaming
with Lilliputian cars.
You pick up the magazine, flip the pages. They fall open on a double page
spread of a model in a green bikini striking a pose in an otherwise vacant, gleaming,
metal and glass laundromat. What is it they are advertising? Aha, here’s a logo:
Vogue’s Style.com. And the headline striped across the pages reads: RUNWAYS ARE
you already have that one at home. On the solid black cover, two oblong parallels,
meant to suggest the destroyed towers, are rendered in a matte varnish so subtle, it
takes a certain angle of light to recognize that they are there at all. But the date:
September 11, 2001, running in white boldface vertically up the left hand margin
eliminates all doubt about what we are supposed to see.
Perhaps one day the Jihad-War on Terror will find its Homer, as Eratosthenes
calculated all events from the Fall of Troy. And our Helen is black and viscous: she is
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 237
The Great Figure
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.
– William Carlos Williams
death alone answers to the impatience of minds and to the haste of affairs.
– Jean Léon Jaurès, as quoted by Barthes, Michelet, p. 61.
To be a fifty-something man in these times is to be on your way to Beth Israel for
your first colonoscopy, as you are today on the crosstown bus, passing on foot among
the puddles in Stuyvesant Square, the Quaker Meeting house behind you, the hospital
ahead on your left, the old Stuyvesant High School on your right. Did you envy the
smart kids who went there? The smart kids, now more Asian than Jewish who you
used to see talking about calculus on the E train from the WTC on their way home from
You don’t feel the IV, only the Demerol and whatever else suffuses your chest
cavity – no, the drugs more overlay your heart like a cool heating pad. You’re out. You
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 238
• • •
Elizabeth tells you of the case of a young girl who witnessed, from her home
nearby, the towers’ collapse, perhaps even desperate people leaping from the high
windows. She and her mother and father were evacuated unharmed. Yet her invisible
companion lost both parents in the tragedy.
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