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Just after the starting gun for the Belmont stakes, War Emblem brushes against
another horse, stumbles and throws his jockey. Somewhere, a Saudi prince watches as
the Triple Crown runs through his fingers like sand. A horse named Sarava, a 70-1 shot
takes the cup.
The streets of Chelsea – who knows about the rest Manhattan, or the city as a
whole? – give off that abandoned feel. Just listless, not Sunday Morning Velvets lazy.
Sure, it’s been thirty-five years since that groove was cut. Thirty-five years too, give or
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 281
Times’s under the bridge? Many thousands gone.
Is it too early to say that Manhattan no longer believes in itself as the source of all
impossible energies against all impossible odds? Even Yossi, the wiry, Yemeni-looking
Israeli dancer of the ready smile and brilliant teeth, can’t pretend his heart’s not
elsewhere, even as he brings your coffee. Perhaps it’s just that in this overcast light, this
tentative spring, we are permitting the disappointment to read on our faces. Lately the
New York smile has had so forced a look, as though an autonomic reaction to a needle
prick, independent of what is felt deeper down. Numerous women appear all the more
beautiful for the diminished rigor of the tensed facial muscles. But Kimsey, whose
teeshirt reads: the rapture, the rapture, the rapture, tries to hard to maintain her perkiness
and consequently doesn’t wear the mood as well.
You think about Two Roads, Meg’s play about the great South Florida hurricane
of 1935 and how the barometer, interpreted this way and that, becomes a mute, yet
eloquent character in the drama. Are you turning into a barometer? Sloughing off your
coat of individualism to become a response mechanism for the collective atmospheric
pressure? This morning feels so similar to the vibe last September 3, Labor Day. Except
that then, you took the feeling personally, and now it’s not about you any more. It’s
about what happens.
A woman whose name you don’t remember – an ex-parent at PS11 who pulled
her son Luke out a couple of years ago – stops outside of Gamin when she spots you
through the window. She’s pushing a huge empty black shopping cart and heading
south on Ninth. You rush out. Bear hugs. It’s been months, maybe a year. She’s your
height, but twice your breadth. For whatever reason there’s always been some sort of
simpatico between you. You fall into talking schools. She’s hoping Bloomberg will
wrest some power from the principals. Luke, a year older than Gwen, is heading for the
Museum School having not made the cut at School of the Future. Disappointed, since
she’d thought all his years in the accelerated program would have counted for
something. Hopes for the best though, believing as she does that God arranges things
in ways we can’t anticipate – imagines Luke saying, years from now: “That teacher at
the Museum School changed my life.”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 282
He’s off to camp after graduating from fifth grade. Loaded with books. She’s
investing in a computer for him, and when he comes back, Luke will find his room set
up with a new desk and “ready for business.”
Like you, she has all her eggs in one basket – Luke’s an only child too. You know
a little about what it is to be the steward, in partnership with Katie, of a fast-growing
girl, moving inexorably toward adolescence and beyond. How would you cope as the
single mother of a lad already taller than you, and approaching a cusp of his own?
“This is when it get serious,” she says.
• • •
Long years since finishing Divided…, Scott sends you a tidbit you somehow
missed in your research: xeroxed pages from The Best, Worst and Most Unusual:
Noteworthy Achievements, Events, Feats and Blunders of Every Conceivable Kind. Published
in 1976, the book cites the World Trade Center as the “World’s Worst Office Building.”
How strangely now, these words from the Bicentennial year play in the mind.
“Besides blighting the skyline and affronting the eye, the World Trade Center is
also a wretched place to work. ‘When I approach the building, I just don’t want to go in
there,’ says one employee. Says another, ‘Sometimes I just walk out, intending to get
out for an hour for lunch, and can’t make myself come back.’
The Center’s horrors are many – inexplicably sealed mail chutes, hopelessly
snarled telephone lines, centrally controlled office lighting that can be controlled after
hours only by means of a written request submitted at least a day in advance – but the
building’s denizens reserve a special place in their spleens for the elevators.
Plummeting downward so fast that their walls shake audibly, they break down
frequently, spilling over with humanity during rush hours. ‘Sometimes I feel like a
lemming – or a salmon swimming upstream,’ says one New York State employee… ‘If I
can’t leave at 4:45 I wait until a quarter past five or I walk downstairs rather than be
squeezed into the elevator.’ A woman whose office is on the eighty-second floor
describes the noontime trip to the cafeteria: ‘I have to take a local elevator to the
seventy-eighth floor, then and express to the first floor, then an express to the forty-
fourth, then an escalator to the forty third, where I get a lousy meal.’
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 283
Many workers have complained of psychosomatic ailments that are directly
traceable to the Center – one Manhattan physician has treated five such patients.
Leonard Levin, a staff member of the New York Racing Board, whose office is in the
Center, says, ‘There is one wonderful thing about the World Trade Center, It feels
sooooooooo good when you get home at night!’”
• • •
Comes the news yesterday of the remains of twelve people discovered in the
ruined Deutche Bank building just south of where Tower 2 stood. Sealed since
September 11, the huge vertical warren of toxicity is only now being explored, and
cleaned out. You try to imagine the cost. The conditions.
• • •
For the past few days you’ve been possessed of a great desire to walk atop the
High Line with Gwen. It would be an adventure and a half seeing the city from up
there, the old track bed sprouting with spring greenery.
T.’s got his office in a converted industrial building, which abuts the line just to
the west. You’ve seen, from the window near the stairway on the sixth floor, how easy
it would be, from the equivalent window on the third floor, to drop a few feet down, or
perhaps clamber up from the second. You begin to cook up a vision how you’ll put
elastic bands around Gwen’s and your pants legs to keep the ticks off and how careful
you’ll have to be of the broken glass and other hazards as you walk up north toward
where the tracks bend toward the Hudson.
Which prompted you, when you went for a meeting this morning at T.’s, to do a
recon of possible safe egresses, only to find that the second floor window has a grate
over it and the third floor is entirely tenanted by one company which keeps the
stairwell door locked. No doubt you could contact the Save the High Line people and
arrange to go up yourself, but they’d never allow Gwen to accompany you, and in any
case the enterprise would lose its transgressive edge. But you’re not going to give up
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 284
• • •
Katie laughs aloud reading from her Terry Pratchett book. What cracked her up?
His definition of the civilized world as one “that can support historians.”
You’d arranged to meet Rob M. here at 9:30 before taking off to tour the ex-WTC
site. Rob reviewed Divided… twice for his Boston paper, once when it first came out –
citing the section on the trade center as a prefabricated ruin – and then again after the
towers fell. You’ve emailed back and forth occasionally since then, and agreed to get
together for a walkabout whenever he found time to take a day off and fly down. And
now, here he is – early even, it’s only 9:15 – eager to talk, gather information toward his
article for a “major magazine,” and the problem is you find, in the instant, that you
can’t do it. Can’t possibly face going downtown this morning. But he is cool with that.
So you schmooze a while in your protected zone, then walk him over to the
Strand. Once inside, Rob heads off to graze one section of the pasture, you another.
Into the stacks you press – and get lucky. There on the shelf, side by side, as though
they’ve been waiting for you to arrive and claim them, stand twin copies of Barthes’s
yet, unlike your own well-marked paperback. Then downstairs to look for a review
copy of After the World Trade Center. If it’s there, it’ll be half price, which beats the one
third discount you get from the publisher. Look first under S for Sorkin, then Z for
Zukin and finally, just in case, under A for After, but no dice. Instead, Shahid Ali’s
book, Rooms are Never Finished, posthumous and just published, practically leaps off the
shelf and into your hands. The only copy. You let the covers fall open, then focus your
eyes where they’ve landed – recto page 59, “Barcelona Airport”:
Are you carrying anything that could
Be dangerous for the other passengers?
O just my heart first terrorist
(a flame dies by dawn in every shade)
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 285
Crescent-lit it fits the profile
on your screen…
Where to find After? The fellow at the information desk looks it up on his
computer, then disappears into the STAFF ONLY section, and returns holding the sole
available copy. You walk upstairs, reconnoiter with Rob, who, when he visits the
Strand, usually buys so many books he has to ship them up to Boston. Amidst the
tables full of variously eager and indifferent volumes, you resume your conversation, in
order to wind it down for now, pledging to continue it in the future. You part
company, one home to write this, and the other to the place where today, particularly
today, you just can’t make yourself be present.
You used to imagine Le Gamin as your outpost. More and more you see it as a
trading post. Here you sit, in the manner of a pasha, and every day, the stories of the
world, like so many spices and fine-wrought goods come, by straight or circuitous rout,
People too. Deborah Harry at Table 18. Chelsea Clinton over at 13 . Not to
mention Ethan Hawke who’s said to have been a regular for years, though you
wouldn’t know him from Adam. Nor any of the others either. Someone always has to
point celebrities out to you. Michael Stipe you recognized, more as an exercise in
phrenology than anything else. Who next? Idi Amin? Bin Laden? T’aint funny,
for Mario, Roberto and Tomás, and any of the fellows who work with them behind the
counter at the grill, the chopping board and sink. Lots of other stories, but that one
entered through the airwaves from thousands of miles away. Another story is that you
are learning, flooded as you are by stories, to let a few roll off you, duck-like, even as
you float amidst them, even as they form the medium that carries your nurturance.
• • •
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 286
On the corner of 25th and Eighth, workmen begin reconstructing the subway
entrance on your corner trashed one night last December by the sudden and
unexpected arrival of four thousand pounds of SUV. Whenever you use that acronym,
Gwen comes to mind and how she loves to sing the lyrics Ken A. appropriated from an
old Quaker song for his comicstrip “Road Kill Bill.” Bill is a furry-tailed mammal, a
squirrel probably, who contrary to his name, never dies, no matter how often he’s run
over. Every time Bill scrapes himself off the tarmac, a bandolier of tiremarks printed
across his body, he attempts to Socratically engage his assailant, a monstrous white fella
named Anger Man. But to no effect. Anger Man just rolls up the windows, cranks the
AC, and flattens Bill again, chanting his war cry all the while:
Tis a gift to be free
Tis a gift to drive a
With a four-wheel drive
and a stereo DVD…
While you’re musing one of the workmen jacks into a lightpole’s electrical
supply and, wielding a drill whose bit is of nearly satyric proportions, proceeds to bore
holes in what remains of the concrete form to which the entrance frame and railings will
ultimately be affixed. Into the holes he bores, another workman inserts lengths of rebar,
spiral-turned steel rods.
Downtown a couple of miles yawns the great Bathtub you couldn’t bring
yourself to see up close, and here, not twenty feet from the winding path that leads to
your building’s door, a sensibly-scaled, graspable and comforting restoration takes
shape. Will the new subway entrance resemble the old one? Will they fake it in grand
New Urbanist tradition, like the bishop’s crook lamp posts on the new-minted streets of
Battery Park City? Or will they perform an act that screams: Today!
Once, you pointed out to Gwen variations in the cast iron ornaments – some sort
of Titan’s heads – that adorn the railing round The Dakota. Some of them are original,
and others, too badly corroded to support the property values, have been replaced with
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 287
the same – both new and ancient Titans painted shiny black. But the old ornaments
wear a biography of weathering and chipped undercoats that telegraphs their
particularity. And their visages look fiercer, truly chthonic. For now, until they’ve been
through what the others have, the fresh-faced ornaments come off like poseurs. And
now that she can see it, Gwen points out the difference each time you walk by. And
she, who can never fathom which direction she is walking in – though she’s traversed
the city’s paths for nearly ten years – nonetheless unfailingly recalls what you only
mentioned once, and in passing: this is the spot where John Lennon was shot.
• • •
This p.m. comes an email from Rob:
Thanks so much for taking the time to meet with me. I like your office a great
deal. It reminds me of Paris. I could imagine sitting around there a lot.
I had a very interesting walk. First and foremost, it’s a hole in the ground, of
course. I had a good time talking to tourists who had never been to New York before. I
can't imagine what they were getting from the experience, since I can't imagine that the
visit would be meaningful unless you knew what you were seeing. Personally, I found
it very startling, since my brain had difficulty encompassing the void and kept trying to
infill the space with what I remember from my last visit there. I think it is time to
remove the viewing platform and the screens that block the view of the scene. There is
no conceivable argument now that gawkers would be unseemly.
I had an interesting conversation with a guy from Nebraska who had problems
with building anything there because the land was “sacred.” I pointed out that it was
pretty sacred to the native people who probably wouldn't have appreciated the towers
on their site, and he asked if I was some kind of commie.
It is pretty clear from looking at the site that rebuilding the towers would be
absurd. It occurs to me that the area is much improved by the absence of the towers. I
also think it would be absurd to make it a park, which would make World Financial
Center look like some kind of Corbusian nightmare. I also hope that the eventual plan
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 288
the WTC or the WFC would be a mistake.
I did have an interesting experience on the subway that illustrated a point you
made. Two Arabs got on the subway car carrying briefcases. This elderly woman
sitting near where they sat down scurried to the other end of the car and sat down next
to me. I pointed out to her that if these guys were carrying bombs, it didn’t matter
where she was in the train. She then denied that she had moved at all.
As feared, I had some trouble getting through security at the airport going back
to Boston. Paying cash, no luggage, and carrying a briefcase full of info about the WTC
set off all the profiling bells, and I had to explain myself to the pleasant machine gun
wielding national guardsmen. Thank god I had the book you signed, since it confirmed
that I was weird as opposed to dangerous.
Thanks again. I’m sure I’ll be in touch.
If the great breadth of the U.S. is the heartland, how does that square with New
York City as the heart of this land. Or is it one part heart, one part brain, not to say
mind? For David Rockefeller, the financial district was the “heart pump of the capital
blood of the free world,” but does it function like that organ-muscle in other, even
deeper ways as well? And did Lower Manhattan ever serve the role that David
Rob M. says that in his travels he’s observed that anguish over, even interest in,
or connection to the “events” of 9/11 are pretty much limited to the northeast. You
haven’t ventured outside the city physically or psychically enough to read the mood,
but you can feel for sure that this city is heart-sick. How or will this sorrow make its
way out and across the latitudes and oceans too?
Rob asked you, not rhetorically, what could really shock America as a whole.
Without even thinking you replied: Take away their SUVs. As soon as it was out in the
air, it sounded glib and facile. But the more you think about it, the more you realize it’s
Up out of the café betimes and across through the flower district to visit Kelly
McD in the rain. She sits opposite you, remarks on the warmth of your hands,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 289
who recommended Kelly, and Kelly helped free your lungs from the grip of the trade
towers. Somehow too, she finds ways, not just to bring the energies of your mind and
body into the same room together, but also to demonstrate that what seems wide-split
lies closer together than you imagine.
She walks slowly round you, supine on the table, palpates each spot before
placing the needle, tells you she expects this will be a difficult fall. Here, in her small
office on East 28th Street, she will map the topography, chart the ripples through her
clients’ bodies, of last fall’s great battery.
The state you go into lying there, quilled like a porcupine, a lamp heating your
abdomen, is deeper than sleep, and when she opens the door and you awake, your head
reasserts its attempt at domination. In the few moments before you entirely untransify,
Kelly plies you with sage counsel. You strain to hear what she is saying. She’s talking
normally. It’s just that her words have a lot of layers to penetrate. You’ll keep coming
back, hoping to get your arms around the underlying problem. But you suspect that
ultimately, this cure would work better in a different geography. For you, there are
triggers all around. This burg is a psychic minefield. Living in New York City is like an
alcoholic working in a bar.
Out onto the street. This sure is one reluctant spring. It pours. It shivers. Hey
now, hey now, hey now. New Yorkers walking fast as chickens, playing chicken with
our umbrellas. A ragtag team of men fling the dusty, jagged contents of gray
Rubbermaid garbage cans into the hopper of a compacting truck. None of them wears a
mask. The flanks of the truck are airbrushed Avanti Demolition Company. Fast forward.
Walking toward home, you flash on how a young retarded man from a group
home in Chelsea makes it a practice to step into the café on his way to wherever he goes
weekday mornings and shout “hi” at the waitstaff. Sometimes when he’s in a hurry,
he’ll crack the door, stick his head in and voice his greeting in the upper range of a
tenor – bright-eyed and all smiles.
This morning, he came all the way inside, then noticed through the window the
WALK light on Ninth flashing its imminent change to red. So Kimsey’s reply was lost
as he bolted out and across the street. You’ve noted this more than once, how the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 290
behavior of those who imagine ourselves normal. Has it not been said, in Arabic: Ajila
min Shetan – hurrying is for Satan?
Inscrutable dance of the other.
First Day – a.m.
Hallowed ground, how so? There are no oil reserves beneath Lower Manhattan.
No known oil reserves there at all.
Early p.m. Pick up Katie and Gwen at Quaker meeting. Some Friend, clever
with design, has created a lapel button whose graphic brings the twin towers close
enough together to function as the upright stroke of a peace symbol. Buy two.
The three of you walk west to Au Bon Pain on Fifth and 15th for lunch before
Gwen’s piano lesson. You’re about to sit down to soup when it strikes you to double
back to the Amalgamated a block east on Union Square West to get more cash. The
soup’s too hot anyway.
Half of New York’s crammed into the airless chamber where you wait on line for
the sole working machine, shuffling forward amidst an effusion of discarded receipts.
Perform the beeping ritual, pocket the bread. Scope a fast panorama outside to make
sure no one marked you, head back toward the restaurant. Not far along 15th, a black
backpack lies on the sidewalk. Refuse strewn around. Keep walking. Single minded.
Algorithmic. Soup, then piano lesson, then…. Midway down the block, reverse again
to confirm what you saw but didn’t see. Backpack’s ripped open. Ripped off? This
time take your time. Survey and record:
4 athletic shoes, all well-worn, one pair Fila, the other Riddel
2 folding umbrellas
1 almost full bottle of Slice
Several dozen dark brown, lozenge-shaped tablets, everywhere, underfoot
1 pair of gray, patterned Perry Ellis underpants
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 291
1 light gray plastic ID card issued by the New York State Department of
Correctional Services to Melvin Lewis, a “black male,” born 8/13/80, height: 6’2”,
release date 3/25/02, after which this card was “valid for 60 days.”
Also scattered across the sidewalk, some facing up, eight photographs, black and
white five by sevens, well shot and professionally printed. Several show a man who’s
likely Melvin together with various other people posed on the street in front of the
enamel sign for a subway entrance you’ve seen a thousand times – on the northwest
corner of Waverly and Sixth nearly flush up against the side wall of the Twin Brothers
restaurant. In one shot, Melvin and a companion sit on milk crates. Melvin’s arm
drapes around the shoulder of older white, alkie-looking fellow. Melvin wears a knit
skull cap and toasts the camera with a 20 oz. can of Budweiser. A cigarette hangs from
his buddy’s hand. The photos, the ID card and the toothbrush are all smeared with a
You walk back toward the restaurant. There’s Katie, down the street. You’ve
been gone so long she’s come out to look for you. You wave and she turns, goes back
inside. Over your now-tepid soup, you explain why, aside from the wait at the bank, it
took you so long to return. You and Katie debate what to do. Should you leave the
stuff where it is in case Melvin comes looking for it? Problem is, Waverly and Sixth
seems his usual spot – or it was – and Union Square is a good half mile from there. So
the likelihood of him homing in on it here seems remote at best.
What would you want a stranger to do if you were Melvin? Impossible to say.
The card’s expired. The umbrellas aren’t worth a search and everything else is pretty
much spoiled. Yet even in their distressed condition, the pictures seem worth saving.
Best go back and gather them up and on Monday, call the Department of Corrections.
Tell them, if they have any further contact with Melvin Lewis or he with them, that
you’re holding his pictures for him. You’ll also look him up in the phone book, but that
seems a pro forma exercise. Polish off you corn chowder, now officially gelatinous,
Katie and Gwen having long finished theirs. Send Gwen to get some napkins and ask
the cashier for a plastic bag. Gwen is vastly intrigued by your discovery, wants to go
back with you. At the site, she follows you about holding the plastic bag open as you
use the napkins to gather up the photos and the ID card. Not so easy to pick up the
photos with a napkin. So you use your foot to push them across a seam in the sidewalk,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 292
underneath. Gwen speculates on the nature of the occurrence: perhaps this stuff
belonged to two people, since there are two umbrellas. You tie the plastic bag and put
it in her backpack.
Katie waits on the corner. Westward ho. You stop into Kid’s Gap and buy Gwen
a navy blue hooded sweatshirt. Despite the detours, you arrive at her lesson right on
You and K. sit in the Seminary garden until the rain forces you indoors. Wait on
the bench outside Andrejika’s studio and listen to the sounds from within. They are
working on a calypso. Gwen’s tone is lovely, at first you think it’s Andrejika playing.
But then you catch a slight waver in the beat, a recovery, and Andrejika nearly shout
“Yes! Yes, that’s it, da-dah-dah!”
Next to last lesson before you break for summer. “Syncopation,” says Andrejika,
“it’s tough, but she’s getting it.”
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