February 10 – 42nd Street & Broadway – Midafternoon
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- May 9, Noontime
- June 22 – 23rd Street Near Ninth Avenue
- August 18 – Midmorning
- September 5 – 23rd Street Eighth Avenue – Midafternoon
- September 7 – Le Gamin Chelsea – Early Morning
- September 9 – Midmorning
- September 11 – Le Gamin SoHo – Early Morning
- September 23 – Uptown 1 – Morning Rush Hour
- September 26 – MacDougal Street – Early Morning
- October 21 – Little Park at the Corner of Houston Street Sixth Avenue – Morning
- October 31 – 23rd Street Eighth Avenue
- November 4 – Le Gamin Chelsea – Early Morning
- November 11 – Greenwich Avenue Between 10th Charles Streets
- November 16 – Downtown 1 – Early Evening
- December 10 – Le Gamin SoHo
Subway platform. A man with a million dollar arm balls up a paper bag and
wings it at the rat, foraging in the tracks. Struck on its flank, the rat starts, sits up,
doesn’t run. No more flying objects comes his way, so he goes about his business.
Walk east from Frank’s house, reeling as ever from his tales. The last of the great
New York Jewish Irishmen – he turns eighty-two in May. Another Gemini. Whenever
Frank introduces you, it’s as his “Last Official Student.” You carry two books on loan:
the Collected Poems of Philip Larkin, and a tiny clothbound New Century Library edition
of Samuel Butler’s Erewohn. For your girls, a half-dozen of his currant scones. Frank
keeps experimenting and this is the best batch yet. Since his wife Gloria died, you try
get down here fairly often. ‘94 that was, Year of the Four Deaths: Katie’s father
Franklin, Gloria, Ellen – a close friend and far too young. Then in December, your
On the corner you stop to wait for the light – pull out the Larkin, open it
anyplace, read the poem on the recto page:
If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 18
My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,
And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.
You ford Hudson Street, then turn right to cross Horatio. Midway, the lettering
on a manhole cover catches your eye: NYC SEWER SYSTEM – MADE IN INDIA.
Double take. Read it again. All caps, three inches high. No, not Indiana. A new
ingredient in the melting pot: cast steel from the other side of the world.
You shift your eyes to the awning ahead: MYERS OF KESWICK – pronounced
“kezik.” A little bell tinkles above the doorway as you enter. Here, if you’re a
homesick Brit, you can fill your shopping basket with Marmite, Shrewsberry cakes,
tinned mulligatawny soup, boxes of Ty-phoo tea, and blends of Heinz ketchup and
baked beans of a subtly different blend than their American cousins. But it’s pasties for
supper you’ve come for, and there they are, cooling behind display case glass: chicken
and mushroom, curried lamb, shepherd’s, pork and apple, steak and kidney. Made on
the premises. Addictive too – it’s the lard.
There is, in fact, an actual Myer, Peter Myer that is, rubicund face, slightly flaccid
cheeks, small, sharp nose. His dark hair’s going gray, thinning a bit, and he wears it
combed straight back off his forehead. Always in the shop, but he never waits on
customers – that post belongs to a young woman – Mr. Myer is either in the kitchen or
seated at a table at the back, sipping tea, immersed in ledger books and order forms, or
else he reads the newspaper, a raccoon-sized ginger cat wending between his legs.
Now and again, he’ll look up to survey the scene – a neutral glance, neither wary nor
welcoming. There’s something about him that’s altogether perfect.
The customer ahead of you turns to leave. You’re next. A pork and apple
(Katie’s favorite) and two chicken and mushroom pies (one each for you and Gwen).
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 19
eyes, skin light brown – Antilles in her bloodline somewhere.
She gathers your order. You scan the teapots on the high shelf behind the
counter: a caricature Churchill makes the V-for-Victory sign, his middle finger’s the
spout. John Bull sits, Hogarthian, astride a hogshead, eponymous dog at his feet.
Beneath these china giants, a row of tiny metal double-decker busses, bright red. Lying
to your right stacked on the marble counter, copies of the Sun and Mirror. Something’s
up with the Royals – there’s Di looking at you sidelong from beneath her hatbrim.
The clerk folds down the top of the white paper sack till it’s snug then slips it
into a plastic bag printed with the Union Jack. You give her Andrew Jackson and the
old brass cash register actually sings out kaching! She hands you your change.
You’d like to say something British-sounding in taking your leave. Your usual
“have a good one” belongs to New York – to another world. So you hesitate, and in the
moment, she fills the void. “How d’ya kill a circus?”
“How d’ya kill a circus?” She steps back, hands on apron’d hips.
You’ve never been good at riddles so you don’t really try, just put on a face that
makes it seem you’re giving it a serious ponder. OK, how?
A glint comes into her eye. “Go for the juggler.” You smile. She must have
wanted to try that out all day. She’s pretty, so you feel oddly like you’ve won a prize.
Unlatch the front door – space out for a moment staring at the rack of bawdy postcards
– pull it open. For whom the bell tinkles?
The fast way home is to cross Horatio and cut diagonally across the ball field
toward Eighth Avenue. But this time you detour a few paces out of your way to
confirm that you were not hallucinating. The manhole cover indeed claims it was
MADE IN INDIA. In’ja.
the elevator. Then he shakes his head as if to change the subject he brought up. But
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 20
Gwen’s hardly a shy child and there’s nothing overtly menacing him. If
anything he looks like a cherub dressed up in a suit – usually three-piece – silk tie and
fedora: white hair, pink cheeks clean shaven, talcum-powder sweet like he just came
from the barbershop. Yet it used to be that whenever the elevator stopped at 18 and Mr.
Litwin got on, she would hide behind your leg and bury her face in your coat. It had to
be his clumsy attempts at friendliness she found importuning. He’d reach out to try
and chuck under her chin and say – too loud and deadpan to register as a joke – “why
don’t you come live with me?”
It wasn’t as if you saw him every day, and at most once a month with Gwen, but
so awkward were these chance encounters that you took it upon yourself to somehow
turn the dynamic around. “This isn’t going to be easy,” you said. “But next time, the
minute he gets into the elevator, before he can open his mouth, you say Hello, Mr.
now to take what you said on faith. At the next opportunity she gave it a shot, and –
wonder of wonders – he stepped back as if struck by voltage. And thus began their first
conversation – an exchange of pleasantries that lasted all the way to the lobby.
Listening to them, you indulged in a Father Knows Best moment, the sweeter for its
These days Gwen throws her arms around Mr. Litwin when she sees him,
walking slowly to or from temple, getting his mail, or riding the elevator. He gives her
Hanukah gelt, of course, and birthday money – always a $20 bill, and there’s no
deterring him. And once or twice when you’ve run into him on Eighth Avenue, he’s
bought a lottery ticket to share with her. Their birthdays are a day apart, she’s July
14th, he’s the 15th, so he must figure there’s a winner in that combination somewhere.
This morning, Saturday, early. Gwen’s still asleep, you’re off to the café. Mr.
Litwin gets on the elevator, dapper as ever, dressed for synagogue. You trade hellos.
And then he asks: “What’s today?”
You look at your watch and tell him the 19th, but it’s a rhetorical question.
“Tomorrow,” he says, “April 20th. They renamed Lodz as a birthday present for
Hitler. “Two hundred fifty thousand Poles, Germans and Jews. The Germans and Jews
were the richest – they owned the factories and mills.”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 21
He’s voluble today, more so than usual. You hold the lobby door open for him,
slow your pace down to his totter. Past the sycamores lining the block between 25th
and 24th Streets. Past the shoe man, Chicken Delight, Shangrila. Past Bassry’s stand.
At the corner of 23rd, he stops.
“What was it like? You already know. If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me.
What was it like? I went up to the top of the Empire State Building. I jumped off. I got
up and walked away. Do you believe me? May 1st the Nazis tried to escape, but the
Americans had cut the rail lines. May 2nd we were liberated. Soon we’ll all be gone.
Twenty-six years old. Sixty-six pounds.”
The traffic signal flashes walk. “Be well,” he says. “Be well,” you reply.
“I pray to God.” He starts across the street. Then it comes back to you. Not long
after you first moved in, when you were maybe thirteen, Bea whispered – as though
transmitting a dangerous knowledge – something you’d completely managed to blank
out in the intervening years: “Mr. Litwin was in Auschwitz.” You were born in 1950.
“Happy holidays,” you call after him, but the traffic drowns you out. He’s
already crossing Eighth Avenue toward the synagogue.
Someone taps your shoulder. It’s Bassry, shining a plum for Gwen. “How are
you, my brother?” Fine. And you? Bassry’s smile widens, he glances heavenward,
spreads his arms a bit as though to catch or release some invisible object. “Good, thank
Much of the morning spent talking with a really fascinating woman, Nancy Topf,
a potential writing student via Paul. She wants to find a coach who can help her with a
book about “dynamic anatomy,” a method she’s evolved in the course of twenty-five
years practicing body work, treating mostly dance and sports injuries. Not your
average student. Former Cunningham dancer. Uses visualization techniques in the
service of realignment. Big emphasis on the action of the psoas, a complex, deep-seated
abdominal muscle. All news to you.
She pulls out drawings from scores of workshops she’s led. Large sheets of
newsprint, bold renderings of the figure, interwoven with energy spirals, loops,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 22
real deal. When you shake hands in parting, you feel like your arm’s been electrified.
She’d be big fun to work with and you get a sense already that she feels the same about
along in a tunnel under less than optimal conditions, her words on the page conjure
images that trigger subtle shifts in how you’re sitting, the positions of your pelvis, legs
and spine. Weird and powerful sensations. As though the eye could be internalized,
transformed into an agent of touch.
Sign taped inside window of an electronics shop on Fifth Avenue and 27th Street:
YES! WE SPEAK ANDORRAN!
Frank’s birthday. Eighty-two, kineahora, as Bea used to say. The route down
Ninth Avenue from Le Gamin to his townhouse takes you past a whole anthropology of
urban orders. Across 21st Street on the west side, the resolutely banal facade of the
General Theological Seminary masks a quad straight out of Oxford, utterly invisible to
the passerby. Then the Robert Fulton Houses: three enormous slabs thrown up in the
‘60s, and oriented so that the playgrounds and basketball courts between them lie in
near-perpetual shadow. One foggy day, as you approached from the east, the buildings
emerged from the mist like a trio of cruise ships berthed side by side – for an instant it
seemed the shore had moved a quarter mile inland. It’s the rare occasion though that
atmospherics conspire to lend them that kind of romance.
A couple of blocks further south, across the avenue, the tall, sloping white facade
of Covenant House, a once-celebrated youth shelter, now infamous for the liberties its
priest-founder took with his charges. Built as the headquarters of the Longshoreman’s
union, the windows are round like portholes, the effect part prison-like, part whimsical.
Just to the south, taking up the whole block between 15th and 16th Streets,
Eighth to Ninth Avenues, the behemoth Inland Terminal, built by the Port Authority in
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 23
docks large enough to fit a good-sized truck. Used to be a heliport on the west end of
the roof too. When you were a teenager, newly moved into Penn South and prey to
sliding into detached, timeless lulls between bouts of frenetic activity, you’d stare out
your bedroom window and watch the choppers come and go. The terminal’s outlived
its industrial era intent – it’s privately owned now. Swank offices upstairs, retail in the
ex-loading docks. Converted, so they say, as though real estate were religion, and the
building itself had found a truer faith. Long as you’ve got the do-re-mi.
On the cusp of 14th Street now. Gateway to the Meat District. Planted
foursquare on the overhang above the entrance to the Old Homestead Steakhouse, the
life-size brown and white steer. Village landmark – as close to immemorial as it gets.
Never been inside the place, though it’s always fascinated from afar. Jack and Bea, of
course, disdained the place, and, in truth, it probably cost more than they could afford.
How many coats of paint on that steer, between the fifties and now? Katie’s folks had
no such compunction, took her there on a trip in from Long Island. Objectively
nothing’s stopped you from going in for years now. Funny though how these things
carry over from childhood. A kind of reverse snobbery that’s made certain places feel
off-limits even as an adult. You could, for example, walk into Brooks Brothers too – it
would be possible under the sun. No one would throw you out. Unlikely they’d even
sneer. But it’s not part of your mental geography.
These streets, on the other hand, have worked their way into your molecules.
Like most of the city south of 14th Street, all grids are off. Cobbled or paved-over
streets trace native trails, cow paths, or some other pre-industrial usage. Sometimes the
sequence almost makes sense. In this part of the Village, two named streets, say
Horatio and Jane, fall between each numbered street, and then bam! West 4th and West
12th Streets cross one another – the pretence of regularity falls apart.
Disorder in more ways than one. And the Meat District in its marbelized shades
of meaning. Until a couple of years ago, in the early hours, this maze of streets and
alleys bristled with trucks backed up to loading docks, and harbored a thriving traffic
among transvestite prostitutes and their largely bridge and tunnel clients. Back when
you drove a cab and the night hadn’t gone well, this is where you’d cruise to try to
change your luck. High risk territory, but there’d always be fares at four or five a.m.,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 24
a fat joint through the money slot in the plexiglas partition. If they’d had a bad night
too, or if it was just their thing, they could try to run some trips down. Careful you
were, and not easily marked. But one time, when you’d stopped for a light, four
transvestite hookers jumped in the back seat, and the fifth, an enormous drag queen,
rapped on the front passenger window. So you opened the door and in she got.
Somewhere up in Hell’s Kitchen, you don’t remember exactly where, the four in back
jumped out, while the one next to you faked rummaging in her bag, then bolted out the
door with the money pouch you hadn’t stashed under the seat since there was no way
to be cool about it. Off she took at a gallop, one that would have done Native Dancer
proud. And Native Dancer never had to run on her hind legs in five inch heels. What
was under the seat was your length of galvanized pipe filled with cement, and you
went for that, but by the time you ran round the hood of the cab, her lead was just too
It was down these Meat streets too, behind prohibition-style sliding peepholes –
Natasha sent me – and sometimes literally underground, that the tabernacles of post-
Stonewall gay and bisexual S&M flourished: the Anvil, the Hellfire Club, and the ultra-
hardcore Mine Shaft, which Midwesterners pronounced as Mind Shaft. What a
difference a decade makes. These days, when a meat packager closes, the building is
converted to luxury loft-apartments, or its site becomes the footprint of a “luxury”
residential tower. Here and there, looking west toward the Hudson River, you can still
see a remnant of the High Line, the elevated railroad that once formed the spine of
Manhattan’s industrial West Side. Today the spine’s turned skeletal and missing
vertebrae. Under pressure from developers, the abandoned steelwork’s pulled down,
section by section, heading north. You used to be able to see it, anomalous and familiar,
the rusty horizontal band running up Washington Street at the height of a second story,
whenever you turned right onto Horatio. Now the view’s clear down to the Hudson.
Up the four brownstone steps and ring Frank’s doorbell. It’ll take him a minute
or so – longer if he’s upstairs in the library – to reach the kitchen window, pull it down
and drop the key. Shift the bag of danishes to your left hand in anticipation of the
catch. There it was again, on the way down here – the mystery writing. A couple of
blocks to the northeast where West 4th Street terminates at 13th Street, there’s a vintage
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 25
typical downscale holdout. But the upper floors are sheathed in plywood painted flat
gray, over which someone’s caligraphed three gigantic Chinese ideograms so vibrantly
red they can be seen for half a mile, all the way from where West 4th angles clockwise
ten degrees at Christopher. Been there a year or more.
The window cracks, widens. Frank sticks out his head, then his arm. Here
comes the key. Let yourself in. Upstairs. Big hug. He’s looking well, brushy new
haircut. Frank sits in his customary chair, you take the leather lounger on which he’s
draped a motorized massage unit. Pull the lever, up come your legs. Press “back” and
“pulse.” Frank will know about the calligraphy. Sure – it was a backdrop for a Woody
Allen movie. Annie translated it. Mandarin. Means I love you.
Shadow of a seagull on a white stuccoed wall. Great city, are you conscious of
yourself? Down on the corner, a police action. They are busting Sunday morning in his
aspect as a black man, laughing.
East Sixty-Ninth Street. Deep ritz. From opposite directions they advance
towards one another. She’s young and comely, dressed to the nines, the breeze off
Central Park blowing back her gold-blonde hair. He’s harassed, closing-in-on-middle-
aged – his body language agitated as White Man in an R. Crumb cartoon. At the end of
one lightly tanned arm she swings a little black Prada bag. He grasps a dozen leashes
tethering him to a carnival assemblage of dogs whose owners leave home early, head
downtown to where the schist rises near enough to the surface to support the fortress
towers of banks and brokerage houses. Someone’s got to walk ‘em. And it’s a living –
He’s lost control. The dogs have won the day. Total victory. Ecstatic, barking
and leaping, they wind him into a late June maypole. En passant she turns her head,
tilts her chin, widens eyes and shoots him a smile. “Hands full?”
His jaw drops, his gaze follows her locomotion down the street. One, two, three,
four beats. “Oh Christ, I wish.”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 26
• • •
Midafternoon, 68th Street and Park Avenue. Another MADE IN INDIA manhole
cover. East side, west side, all around the town. Well you didn’t think they just made
one of ‘em, did you?
Your path leads you northwest up Broadway toward Union Square. The sun’s at
your back and as you walk over the subway gratings, you see a flash of green. Look
down to discover a trail of underground flora beneath your feet – a canopy of
magnificent weeds. Somehow, ailanthus trees, dozens of them, have rooted in the
coffers of the subway vents, in a soil composed of soot, cigarette butts and gum
wrappers. Occasionally, a shoot pokes through the grating and gets trodden down. But
even his best. One of Manhattan’s most exquisitely proportioned buildings. On a day
like today, it’s easy to imagine yourself at the top of its spire, observing the bias cut of
Broadway as it angles against the grid. Broadway was already a trail when Europeans
arrived, and before that, long before even the schist was laid down, it ran as a river
valley of dolomite.
Still walking up past Union Square, your toe hits a little upraised faultline on the
pavement and you stumble in a kind dup-da-dup that flashes you back into the bassline
of an old pop song: The sidewalks in the street; The concrete and the clay beneath my feet;
Begins to crumble; But love will never die…
Who sang that? Don’t remember. It’ll come back. What year? ‘67, ‘66? No, had
to be ‘65. By ‘66 songs already had a harder-edged sound, the culture gearing up
inexorably for the years of ideology and confrontation to come. But ‘65 still had a sense
of open field to it, a lighter touch.
That spring you’d failed Algebra and had to make it up at summerschool:
Washington Irving High, just a block over on Irving Place, where a bust of Mr. Tales of
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 27
have cared less who the bronze geezer was. What you did care about swung past in a
diaphanous frock one lunchbreak while you were shooting the breeze out front with a
fellow dragoon, a crazy bass player named Mark. All at once, a gust of wind rippled
fabric against her form. Mark turned in mid-sentence and literally fell to his knees,
hands clasped before him. Thanked God. You didn’t genuflect, just witnessed dumbly,
embodied in a passing girl, the essential feminine power within the city – a principle
masked by its outer armor. Reginald Marsh painted women in dresses like that, their
bodies all rolling, vibrant flesh, whereas this girl was an urban willow-child, long hair,
loose and straight down her back. Mais plus ça change, plus c’est la même robe.
• • •
Subway to Times Square. Hot enough to fry proverbial eggs on the concrete and
the clay, but there’s not a dress to be seen – strictly business suits, hiphop and
whitefolks’ sportswear, rigid lines or slack ones, no flow of fabric offered to the god of
passing breeze. Reginald Marsh, Damon Runyan, they’ve all cleared out for good.
Some gear in the cosmic clock must’ve slipped because for once you’re early. At
three, Dr. Cooper’s going to fill the immense crater in that lower right molar, but you’ve
half an hour to kill. Walk west and come around to 44th Street.
Right here, into the ‘70s, this now-shuttered row of theaters served up three
action flicks back-to-back for a buck. Crappy prints and sprung seats, but at that price,
who’s complaining? Steve McQueen in Bullit, Sinatra’s Tony Rome, Van Peebles (the
Elder) as Sweet Sweetback, Pam Grier’s Coffy, and the two Lee’s: Christopher played
Dracula and Bruce, the Dragon. And on the street and in a score of bars, a cornucopia
of live bodies – all styles – to stay, or to travel.
It’s strange, quaint even, that given all the other ways you veered from the
straight and narrow, you never hocked yourself or rented another. To be sure, a little
push one way or the other could’ve tipped it – all states being possible and separated
more by membranes than walls. Once, at seventeen, looking fourteen, hair down past
your shoulders, you waited at West 4th Street, half dozing on your feet, for a late-night
subway home. Someone grabbed you from behind, pinned your arms and pushed
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 28
fifty maybe, very drunk. Determined, he came at you again. You cocked your fist back
and he stepped back, widened eyes and cackle-laughed: “I’m goin’ up to Times Square
and buy me a white boy – just like you!” The A train came then and the both of you got
on it – you still shaking.
Thirty years on and it’s a different Times Square, and today pretty much every
marginal enterprise along the Deuce from Sixth to Tenth Avenue is closed or being
gutted in anticipation of brand name stores and tourist megabucks. The “legitimate”
theaters, renovated and revived, now cater to well-heeled out-of-towners. Shrinking
fast, the last preserves of the three-man virtuoso pickpocket team and the sidewalk
chess hustler. Still anchoring the south end of the X, though for who knows how long, a
one-third-scale British Airways Concorde perched atop a low-rise roof. From atop his
pedestal just north of 46th Street, a bronze George M. Cohan still offers Broadway his
You’ve seen the picture, the iconic moment of war’s end: the sailor, anonymous,
dipping an unknown nurse in a victory embrace. But that was back before your day,
when Crossroads of the World must have really meant something. When your ex’s
father came here in the ‘30s, it was on a steamer out of Hamburg. The minute he
stepped off the gangplank, he set about discovering the place that went with the image
he’d been dreaming of for years. Asked the first stranger he met how to get to “Teema
Squara.” Eventually he found it. You never asked him if it lived up to what he’d seen
in his head and it’s too late now.
That’s it. Unit 4+2. The concrete and the clay. Odd name for a band. By tomorrow
it’ll be cleared from your front-line memory again. But the beat’s stuck there for good.
Graffito on subway wall: GHANDI WUZ RITE.
Nancy’s churning out the pages like there’s no tomorrow. She comes up every
couple of weeks to meet you at Le Gamin, shows you what she’s done. When she said
she wanted to write a book, she wasn’t fooling around. Hit the language like it was the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 29
feel physical, like your give and take’s a martial art. Officially a non-writer, she’s your
most engaged student. Today you have to restrain yourself from jumping out of your
seat. Nancy’s invented a dialogue among a teacher, a student and a host of body parts,
bones, muscles. Only a few months in and she’s found the mode to animate her
• • •
You learn of the death, two days ago, in Vienna, of Viktor Frankl.
September 5 – 23rd Street & Eighth Avenue – Midafternoon
“Hey Bongla Dosh! Bongla Dosh!” he shouts, screeches his bike up to the
curbside fruit stand. Abu looks up from making change, smiles his Mona Lisa smile.
The messenger’s another regular customer. Coke-bottle glasses with heavy black
frames, a huge-torsoed man maxing out a red stretch teeshirt. Still straddling his
machine, he begins to fill a plastic bag with tangerines.
Abu works the westernmost of the twin, umbrella-covered carts. Bassry, boss
and owner, mans the one across the avenue. Kesban, whose truck makes the early
morning Hunt’s point runs, floats between the two. Apart from Sundays and major
holidays – or those rare occasions when bad weather cuts sidewalk business to a trickle
– the tandem stands anchor the crossroads, from sunrise until dusk, vending fresh fruit
and vegetables à bon marché to the tides of souls passing through.
When you stop at Abu’s cart alone or with Katie, he’ll pull a ripe banana off a
bunch for Gwen – even if he’s in the midst of making change for one of the fierce old
matriarchs of the Co-op. When Gwenny’s with you, she’ll “surprise” Abu – sneak up
and tap him in the small of the back, then scamper out of view when he turns round.
Eventually, she’ll let herself be caught, and then the banana goes directly to her. Of the
trio, Abu remains the mystery man, the reserved one. Partly, you suppose, because he’s
a hired hand, not a partner. Nor is his English up to Bassry and Kesban’s – he hasn’t
been here as long as they have – so you find yourself communicating primarily through
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 30
and drawn. How are you doing? you asked, and he tapped his heart and shook his head.
When it’s Bassry or Kesban you encounter, they’ll make a quick circuit of the
stand, mix plums with grapes and cherries, palm an organic mango or basket of
strawberries and hand her a small, knotted bagful of fruit. If Gwen’s in school, or at
home, they make you her bag man. You tried, the first few times, to pay for the bounty
they bestow on your child. But Kesban responded with a look, half insulted, half grief-
stricken, and Bassry’s smile distorted into a glare – so you learned to keep your money
in your pocket and simply offer your thanks.
Why in hell write all this? Some bloke in a city. He feels his age – the big five-oh
drawing closer like an ambivalent friend. You laugh aloud and folks at a far table
glance this way. That’s it, the title for your memoir: The Good, The Bad and the Middle-
September 9 – Midmorning
A daydream – a trance vision really – facing south toward Lower Manhattan as
you work out on the Nordic Track. With each pull on the handgrips you draw the trade
towers closer toward you, or perhaps it’s you that skis toward them. Somehow in the
process, you enlarge until you’re huge – their scale – close enough to work your way
between them and drape your arms around their shoulders. They smell of panic. You
want to comfort them, allay their distress. I’m here now, you say. Come on, let’s go. I’ll
September 11 – Le Gamin SoHo – Early Morning
High finance meets café society. Of the trio, the odd man out is the fellow in the
suit: Steve, of J. P. Morgan. Built too large for the banquette or the toy-sized tables,
Steve nonetheless appears completely at ease. Everything is as it should be. When his
glasses slide down his handsome nose, they provide an opportunity for him to raise an
arm, reveal an exquisitely simple cufflink. And his tan, frighteningly even, carrot-hued.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 31
By contrast, his companions exhibit a nearly Hasidic pallor. Wraithlike, bodies
lost within black garments, clothes that seem more like shrouds, their shoulders drawn
forward as if encircling too-vulnerable hearts: Patti, New York’s proto-punk rocker,
and friend Oliver. The subject is investment, or, as Steve puts it, “the financial future.”
For long stretches, Patti sits silent, withdrawn. Occasionally she lifts her bowl of
café au lait and takes a deep draught, turns sideways to gaze out the window. Oliver
wears a goatee and a cap that reads Snohomish Police Department. But his grunge
look’s a cover: he’s asking questions, and from the way the big man nods, they’re good
ones. You reimmerse yourself in your book, and by the time you glance over at them
again, the energy of the group has shifted – the couple’s listening intently as Steve lays
out his vision. The fingers of one hand pressed together and palm flat, his forearm
traverses the marble table top, slicing something. Where have you seen that gesture
before? Ratners – vanished Ratners. “How much you want?” They’d hold the knife
over a length of strudel – move the blade sideways until you gave them the nod.
Little by little, grape by lemon by banana, a new morsel of the Kesban and Bassry
tale. She lives in Queens with her husband and two kids, a boy and girl. Bassry’s
children are back in Egypt where he returns from late December to mid-May every
year. He’s counting the days until he goes home for good. Two years more in New
York, he says, until he has secured his daughters’ future. Both of them go to private
school, “a school with computers,” where they study English. And he must save money
for their dowries. The elder is six now, the younger three, and his wife is pregnant
again. From his apron pocket, Bassry produces a little photo album and there they are
in situ, the furnishings of the Alexandria apartment western-suburban, an odd contrast
with his wife’s traditional clothes. Bassry says he will welcome whatever child comes,
but it’s clear how keen he is on a boy.
Bassry’s day begins before sunup and finishes around eight in the evening,
Monday through Friday. Saturdays, he teaches karate to a doctor and his son. He
learned martial arts in the Egyptian Special Forces, shows you a snapshot of his
younger self in ghi, aloft in a flying kick, high as the heads of his mates watching in the
background. Bassry’s a man of enormous energies, handsome too, but there are days
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 32
“I can’t feel my body.”
Kesban parks her truck at the meters on Eighth Avenue. If the back door’s rolled
open, that means she’s inside arranging boxes. In which case you lift Gwen up onto the
tailgate to get her hug. Then Gwen jumps off and into your arms, a trick which always
makes Kesban nervous, but you’ve never missed yet and don’t intend to. When
Kesban’s working the stand, Gwen runs up to her beneath the umbrella. Either way,
there’s always an embrace and a nuzzle, Gwen’s small head pressed into Kesban’s neck.
“I love you, I love you,” Kesban says. And then, solemn, almost stern: “Be a good girl.
Listen to your mommy and daddy.”
By degrees Kesban’s look’s been morphing. First her straight brown hair took on
a coppery, almost Pre-Raphaelite hue, which suits her skin – then a wave. Next, silver
bracelets appeared on her upper arm, and, visible beneath her apron, evermore
fashionably-cut jeans. For Gwen’s last birthday, Kesban gave her a denim jumper dress
with a zipper up the front. And a bag of cherries. When Kesban goes home to visit her
mother in Ankara, a postcard comes – sometimes after she’s already returned to New
York – addressed to Gwen. The one that made Gwen avid to see Turkey showed a
landscape of white limestone pools filled with bathers set against a brilliant blue sky.
Today, dusk falling, you hurry out to teach Writing X. Just before you take the
subway stairs at 23rd Street, ever alert to the sound of an approaching train, you pause
to shake hands with Bassry. His fingers are blunt, his palms large enough to encompass
a peach, touch-read it for bruises and ripeness. He presses his left hand over yours in a
sandwich, then lays it over his heart. “Peace my brother,” he says.
Packed subway. Two men in suits constellate around the same pole, engaged in
as asymmetrical a conversation as you could want. One fellow’s grand scale, straddles
his briefcase as though it were an inferior sort of horse, peppers his underling with
questions about the company website. The subordinate seems to shrink with every
volley. Next stop’s yours. Time to start fighting you way toward the door. Your back’s
to them now, but above the roar, you hear boss man fire off the million dollar question:
“What I want to know is, do we have the wrong Provider?”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 33
September 26 – MacDougal Street – Early Morning
Kelly green bandanna tied round her head, skin dark as Café Reggio’s espresso.
Olive-drab standard-issue trousers ride low on hips so ample, they’ve stretched the
elastic band of her gray sweatshirt into submission. She drives a huge rusting white
Sanitation truck – persimmon-colored Barney mascot, leaking stuffing out its seams,
crucified to the radiator – backward up MacDougal street. Every thirty feet or so she
brakes and hops out of the cab. With one work-gloved hand, she grabs a big blue
recycling drum sitting curbside, drags it to the truck, and flips it over so the cans and
bottles spill into the maw of the hopper. With the other hand she pats the drum’s
bottom, firm and gentle as burping a baby. Then two moves in rapid succession: she
pulls down the lever that starts the mechanical jaws and spins the empty bin back up
onto the curb.
economy and style in one smooth algorithm, the way Wally Backman and Keith
Hernandez once handled the double play. Except this woman’s a team of her own.
One foot on the step beneath the cab, then up she swings and inside – shift to reverse,
up comes the clutch, accelerator down, eye on the mirror – all energy homing in on that
next patch of blue.
Undomiciled – who can say? Certainly all his art supplies are packed in a
shopping cart. Whenever you pass of a weekday morning you glimpse him through
the fence as he draws and paints, unrolls more heavy paper. Birds with extraordinary
detailed plumage, felines amidst bougainvillea forests, immense orange carp. He uses
the chess tables as both display surface and workbench. He’s bundled up these days in
a parka with a tight-laced hood. A white cardboard sign propped up on a bench,
caligraphed in black: Mirikitani, Imperial Greater Art Department Chief Director, born June
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 34
Early morning, the week before election day, you wait for the invariably jammed
downtown local. Surprise! There’s Ruth Messinger, Manhattan Borough President and
last best Democratic hope for mayor, orange suit peeking out from beneath black
raincoat, leaning against a column and reading the New York Times. Her aides, four or
five of them, all youngish men, pace the platform like expectant dads waiting outside a
maternity ward in a 1950s sitcom. Despite their dark suits, they carry themselves like
boys. If she wins, will they pass out chocolate cigars? Apart from anxiety, this
entourage generates very little presence at all. No flashy campaign buttons, just blue
lapel stickers that read, discretely, RUTH.
You approach the candidate. “Hi, Ruth. Good luck.”
“Thank you.” She smiles – extends her hand in a friendly way. Her aides warily
converge. They seem surprised that someone recognized her. Ruth looks immensely
tired, eyes bloodshoot, pancaked cheeks the color of fading pumpkin.
You head down the platform, away from the incessant electronic beeping, the
tide of human transience pouring through the turnstiles. As the train pulls in, you look
back. Ruth’s still leaning against the column, reading the Times. Her aides continue to
pace. These are not the guys you’d want taking point for you if you were running
against Giuliani – or even, for that matter, shouldering your way onto a jammed
• • •
Midday at the Chelsea Gamin. Young idiots do lunch, one male, one female.
Excited talk about the male’s idea for a genex entertainment/financial news cable show.
Awesome! Music videos intercut with Jakob Dylan’s investment strategies. “I hear you
and I’m way ahead of you!” she shouts.
“Don’t tell anyone! If anyone steals this, I’m screwed!” he yells.
“This could be –”
Magnanimously, he picks up the tab over her disingenuous protests.
“One day maybe we’ll work together,” she barks, the swing of her shearling coat
upending a water glass. Icewater pools, crests, and drips over the edge of the table.
The check and dollar bills gets soggy. Out the door. No tip.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 35
• • •
Eighth Avenue between 21st and 22nd Streets, west side. Early Afternoon. You
walk past a lot fenced off with chain link and topped with ribbonwire. The site’s been
vacant for nearly two years since they knocked down a row of three burned-out,
abandoned, hundred year-old tenements. Some effort being made to maintain the
rubble in pristine condition. Persons unknown, probably agents of the developer, have
been carting away the trash that routinely gets heaved over the fence by night.
Weaving south along the sidewalk, the man pilots a train of four recalcitrant
shopping carts spilling over with empty cans and bottles. His garments consist of a
large black plastic bag inventively knotted, and for footwear, a weave of rags, spiraling
like puttees up his red-brown legs. Alternately pushing and hauling, he raps: “I ain’t
got time for no bitches; gotta keep my mind on my motherfuckin’ riches.”
• • •
Twilight. From nearly every townhouse in the neighborhood, from 20th to 22nd
Street between Eighth and Tenth Avenues, an unearthly glow. On the brownstone
steps perch jack o’ lanterns, not a few carved to a Martha Stewartesque intricacy. These
are the “safe houses” for the neighborhood celebrants – children of lawyers, brokers,
Italian journalists, Brazilian actors, parents on welfare, health care workers, filmmakers,
specialty bakers, Soca musicians, economists, epidemiologists, plasterers – who tonight
have turned to bats, cats, witches, space aliens, pirates, goblins all. These kids will find
nothing toxic in the Snickers plucked from Count Dracula’s bottomless bowl. No pins
have been pushed into the organic apples Mommy Witch dispenses from her doorstep.
It’s already dark thanks to daylight savings time and taperecorded screams
vibrate the still-temperate air. The trees sway, alive with the play of ghosts: ragged-
edged muslin wrapped round grapefruits, hung from the low boughs of a pear tree.
Light pours from the sanctuary of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, command center of All
Hallows ‘een. Foursquare at the gate, a hunchbacked monster doles out orange flyers
listing the addresses of participating houseowners, with suggestions for the most
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 36
sides of their mouths, and dads sprouting devils’ horns. “Trick or treat,” the kids yell at
each waystation, their grins illuminated by fluorescent fangs. Reeling in delight as they
criss-cross the street, they climb and descend the brownstone steps, rapturous as their
bags grow heavier with loot, dizzy with triumph on their once-a-year mission against
Post headline: RUDI SWEEPS. Ruth Messinger has the classic witchy face, but
yesterday New York City voters went and re-elected a real-life ghoul.
But truly, at the mythic level Giuliani more resembles our home-grown King
Pentheus, sworn enemy of the Bacchae. Where are you, Brother Dionysius?
Broadway at 22nd Street, mid-afternoon, yet already getting dark – the street
broken vertically into light and dark masses. You push your pace into overdrive to get
round a slim fella, well-dressed, white, middle-aged and talking urgently into his cell
phone. “It gets so dark after five o’clock… They’re never going to find their way up
that road… Tell them to start earlier – for their own sakes…”
Bea’s birthday. She’d have been eighty-eight, like the keys on her Steinway – the
one her granddaughter now plays.
“One day,” said Albert Ayler, “everything will be as it should be.”
welcomed customers in nineteen languages. And then the boast: “Open 19 Hours.”
The immemorial real estate tale: Landlord Shoots the Rent to the Stratosphere. No
Multiple of Shwarmas Can Close the Gap.
Windows placarded from the inside with spreads of the New York Times.
Campaign finance. Film adaptations of Brontë novels. New York’s Wealth of Nature.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 37
SoHo chic. October 24th issue, already yellow.
Last night, a small round rat dashed across your feet on Sixth Avenue just north
of Broome Street. From the gutter, across the sidewalk, it ran parallel to the stream of
water flowing from the carwash, leapt up the steps and into the office. Anxious and
self-important like he’s late for work. See White Rabbit? See what coming to Gotham
The car is packed so tight, people standing out of reach of a pole or handle
steady themselves by pressing their fingers against the ceiling like waiters balancing an
enormous tray. Assuming they are tall enough to reach that high. The rest of us hope
the density of the other bodies will keep us from losing our balance if the train jolts.
Your back’s to it, so you don’t see the door between cars slide open, but you
hear, momentarily the louder roar. Then it slams shut. Someone’s entered. Through
the vibrant medium of compressed bodies, it’s possible to feel him moving closer, even
before he speaks. I ain’t bathed in three weeks. I’m dirty. I’m smelly. I’m funky. A young
woman embracing a pole and pressed against your arm reads, with superhuman
concentration, a magazine article about a dynasty of supermodels. I want to buy a bar of
of someone’s bag is carving out your liver. For all you know, your own satchel, which
you can neither raise nor lower, may be compromising the reproductive capacity of the
suited fellow with whom you are nearly nose to nose. I want to be clean like youalls. I
want a house like youalls. That’s the reality. I’m trying to deal with the reality. Ever closer. I
want to take a shower. I want to buy a toothbrush and some toothpaste…
The Motive Power of Fire at the Electrokinetics Gallery on Lafayette
Street. Exquisitely crafted models of early steam engines – one described by its inventor
as An ENGINE for Raising Water (with Power made) by Fire.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 38
Elemental stuff. Unimaginable the clang and rush that must have accompanied
those days, so different from the kudzu spread of nanotechnology. A few years back,
when you were teaching a course on technology and social change at Hunter, you
stumbled on a great quote. Boswell toured Watt and Boulton’s manufactory in
Birmingham in 1776, guided by none other than the Iron Chieftain himself. Said
Boulton to the Great Biographer: “I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have –
half. This is a very small restaurant. They’ll never fit. And someone’s barricaded
themselves in the bathroom. You’re sitting close enough to hear the sink running. He –
it must be a he – is washing his hands like there’s no tomorrow. With each modulation
in the roar of the faucets, you imagine him scrubbing, rinsing, cupping. His hands must
be chapped – it’s winter – but he’s going to keep washing until the cows come home.
Now it’s louder – sounds like he’s taking a bath in there, drowning out even the
espresso machine which is churning out foam for the French students’ cafés au lait.
Somehow, they’ve all made it inside the café. They’re a jovial lot and thin as rails.
They squeeze together, several double up on a chair. Soon they generate miasma of
smoke. The first student gets up, tries the bathroom door, rattles it, and receiving no
response, shrugs and turns away. Now you get up and peer into the light seeping
through the door crack. Just visible, the shadow of a torso moving rhythmically, like
he’s davening at the sink, and the sound of the torrent. Sit back down. Occasionally a
student walks over to the bathroom door, jiggles the handle. Behind it rushes a virtual
Niagara of compulsion, but they are visitors to the city and thus find everything
amusing and exotic. They take it all philosophically, return to their table and light up
You, however, are hardcore New York, so you conjure an image of yourself
sliding a credit card into the crack to trip the bolt, then rousting the fellow out – raw,
dripping hands and all – and heaving him bodily into the street. In your Irish cop
persona, you’d stand before the door, barring it. Off with you now, you madman – g’wan!
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 39
oppressive smoke. You bundle up to leave and as you squeeze past the French
students, one of them makes eye contact, holds up his camera with a hopeful are. Out
you stumble, the sixteen of you, like clowns liberated from a Volkswagen. The students
disarrange themselves into two rows on the steps. Looking through the viewfinder,
you still can’t believe they all fit inside. Un, deux, trois – ‘fromage!’ Incredible smiles.
They thank you and pile back into the café. You head north toward home. And
HydroMan – who knows? Will the secret of his identity ever be revealed?
Gwen was not quite three and a half when her grandmother died, so it’s not
likely she can access many memories of ‘mama Bea. You haven’t said anything about
the approaching two-year anniversary, yet Gwen brings up the subject on her own, says
she feels sad about it. Still, she adds, “Mama Bea lives inside our bodies because we
“Yes,” you say, “she lives outside of her body.”
“So,” says Gwen matter-of-factly, “she’s alive and dead.”
Mind adrift. What brought up such an ancient image? Long ago, when you
were maybe seven, you saw a policeman on a motor scooter run head first into a truck
on one of the streets below Houston – Greene Street, probably. Hard to say who caused
the accident, but the cop went flying up in the air, as though propelled by a trampoline,
then came to earth on the Belgian cobbles, quite luckily not headfirst. You remember
him half-sitting there, staring at his broken ankle, the foot displaced, as though it
belonged to someone else, and his visored hat, upside down on the sidewalk.
18th Century word-concept coined by J.G. Herder: Einfühlen – to feel one’s way into the
past, as through a mirror.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 40
Gwen begins a series of tracings: to “make Daddy happy.” Snapshots of herself
with Mama Bea. You tape them up on the wall above her dresser. Gwen directs which
one goes where.
Is this the Gotham where the fools come from?
No sir, this is the Gotham that the fools come to.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 41
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