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The foam overlaying your café français today slowly forms itself into a shape
reminiscent of a sixteenth century map of Europe and Africa.
Down the street a woman approaches, led by a beautiful golden retriever. In the
late afternoon light, the shade of its tongue exactly matches her shirt.
A whiff of linden.
At the café you overhear a young woman with an unplaceable accent talking
with her friend. “Did I ever tell you,” she says, “about the time the Gypsies stole
money from my store?” Apparently her interlocutor has not, for she continues. “They
hypnotized my sister and opened the cash register.”
You glance up and do a double take – particularly since she’s otherwise stylish-
looking. Could that really be an unheeded ball of snot hanging from her nose? Of
course not. Tricky afternoon light. It’s the bauble of her nose ring, which, until she
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 293
p.m. Brief but violent shower. Ensconced at your corner table, you look out the
window to your right: thunderheads. Turn round in your chair and look south. The
sky’s an easy, late spring blue. There’s an atmospheric faultline straight across 21st
Street. This won’t last long, and when it’s over, ideal conditions for a rainbow.
• • •
It’s a phrase one says without thinking: putting your kid(s) through school. But
like airplanes through steel grids, what comes out on the other side?
• • •
Up to the Met this a.m. on a date with Kate, to catch the Renaissance tapestry
show before it closes. Scores of masterworks in knotted yarn overwhelming,
astonishing beauty. One Italian marvel that must’ve packed the wallop of an action
flick in its day, stylized to the point of mannerism, but woven of exquisite threads:
Justice liberating Innocence.
All around the border of one tapestry, made for Charles II de Bourbon, a
fifteenth century cardinal, also bishop of Lyon and courtier the king, a motto, repeated
as often as space will allow: Nespoir Ne Peur. Your French isn’t so hot, and your
medieval French ain’t worth a sou, but are you too far off in imagining that this means
something on the order of “No hope, no fear”?
• • •
You swiped one of the copies of the Post lying around the café this morning, and
now that Gwen’s in bed, flip through it. On the editorial page, John Podhoretz
chronicles some recent bits of nasty local business: rapes, murders, robberies, hostage
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 294
headline. “Spate of brutal crimes tests our new innocence.” What a challenge it was,
and remains, for a culture to remain so innocent. What a triumph over knowledge we
have achieved. Innocent unto our graves. Like a virgin. Two hundred and sixty
million of ‘em. And who among us, in all the land, possesses the widest, most unseeing
Ride the E train uptown. As you approach 42nd Street, the PA crackles and the
conductor begins his rap about all the possible connections it is possible to make at
West 4th Street. Huh!? He finishes by saying: “Next stop, West 4th Street” then, as the
train pulls into to 42nd Street, realizes which direction he’s going in and corrects
himself. But there’s a logic to his disorientation if he was reckoning from 23rd Street,
where you got on. Heading uptown, in two stops you’re at 42nd Street. Southbound,
it’s West 4th that comes two stops later. Makes perfect sense if you turn the world
upside down. As in the poster across from you: call 1800 … if you’re green and don’t have
• • •
Do you love your country? Hard to say. Because in all your fifty-two years, the
notion of “country” has never stirred you. No that’s not true. You did get all het up
about it at around eight. But your true color, as far back as you can remember, has
always been purple. And purple is no more nor less than the mongrel form of red, with
howevermuch white to lighten it, and blue.
• • •
p.m. On Eighth Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets, separated by only a few
squares of sidewalk, two young Latino women in tight shirts hand out fliers in front of
the cell phone store. Above the traffic noise they cry out the absolute on-saleness of
everything Sprint. Just down the block, several white teenagers, hippyish, wearing
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 295
passersby. Weave through it all. Just before you get to Bassry’s stand, it hits you in the
center of your forehead. If somehow the electorate of this country had voted Ralph
Nader into office in 2000, it’s possible the events of September 11th would not have
happened. Other things, no doubt, would have transpired – a whole alternate universe
of other things. But even if 9/11 did go down, how different might the aftermath have
Happy solstice, yo. And the horse you rode in on. The Bushies, it seems, are up
against a wall of their own device. They better get some presumptive A-rabs to do
some serious violence here real soon, or else bomb some real A-rabs real soon, or folks
are going to start thinking they’re being scammed by some jive motherfuckers. Where’s
the fear? Got to keep it cranked. Like oil, eventually fear runs out and then you’ve got
to deal with people who have nothing to lose. Like Baldwin said, the most dangerous.
And they will be us. Of course it’s all unthinkable. The more so because it is simply
happening. The sixties, back with a vengeance – Janus faced, and with an ugly genetic
Or not. Perhaps we ‘mericans have developed the capacity for infinitely
sustainable, low-intensity fear. But whether the threat’s objective, or the substance of
our own tricky shadows, the condition warrants an angry father, and an unsparing
God, to will over our clenching paralysis.
On your way home, the cadence, then the lyrics of a song from elementary school
days well up, then flood back at a walking beat:
Who can retell the things that befell us?
Who can count them?
In every age, a hero or sage
Came to our aid.
Straightaway, once inside, you pull the Fireside Book of Folk Songs off the shelf –
the same edition you remember from school, when you sat in a circle in the music room,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 296
There’s the music for “Who Can Retell,” surmounted by the illustration engraved in
your mind forty-some years back: two bearded patriarchs wearing striped green
caftans stand flanking a third man, who cradles a Torah. You scan through the lyrics,
then your eye jumps to the attribution. Ba-bump in your chest. “Who Can Retell” is
listed as a “Palestinian folk song.” Turn to the copyright page and there it is: 1947. Of
course. The book was published a year before. What a difference a year makes. Now,
• • •
Hold that signifier. But not too tight.
• • •
In the streetside window of Master Cutting Tables Co., 50 West 27th Street,
among the display of dies and wire stitching machines, a head of Charlie McCarthy,
missing his lower jaw, impaled on a metal pole. Good god, is this what it comes to –
caricatures of Robespierre on display in the garment center?
• • •
p.m. You ask Katie if, on your behalf, she’ll call the Department of Corrections in
her aspect as a counselor at law. She speaks to one Lt. Mahoney. He sounds to her like
a straight up guy – promises to get the pictures to Melvin’s parole officer and thence to
Melvin. So you sandwich the pile of warped five by sevens in cardboard, stuff them
into a padded envelope, print PHOTOS – PLEASE DO NOT BEND across the front of it
in fat red magic marker, and off they go via U.S. Mail.
On your way upstairs it occurs to you that you ran into Tom this morning at the
café and though you told him about the pictures, forgot to ask him for Maureen’s
advice on how to clean the crap off them. And now they’re gone.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 297
Tom had listened to your tale with eyebrows raised and afterward said wouldn’t
it be interesting to follow the story through? Which got you to imagine inserting a fiber
optic camera into the envelope and tracking the whole deal. Particularly vivid in your
projection is the way Melvin’s face lights up when he sees, however damaged, the
photos he thought were gone for good. But truth to tell, you can’t know what it is
that’ll go on inside his head, assuming he gets them. Your grandfather Meyer had a
phrase he used when someone tried to palm off a rumor or hearsay as though it was
Truth itself. He didn’t call them on their bullshit in so many words, but rather offered
them a sidelong look and in a kind of stage Yiddish accent asked: “Vas you dere,
Yes, it would be one thing to track the photos you had such a fleeting
relationship with, that sat for a day in a plastic bag on your filing cabinet. It’s another
thing to let them go.
Breezy afternoon, strong sun through the living room window, but not too hot.
Over all the other city noise you hear the sound of a clip clop trot. Look out. Down
there in the city, heading north up Eighth Avenue rides a cop, mounted on a beautiful
Morgan. There’s close, there’s far, and there’s near. And all the distances in between.
Cousin Robert, the high school history teacher with a voice like Robert Blake,
comes in from Joisey on a visit. He and Katie, both into paper folding, want to check
out the Origami Society of America convention, and along you go for the ride. Works
from all over the country, and beyond. Astonishing. So many stunning designs, such
skillfully planned and executed craft, it literally takes your breath away. After half an
hour of marveling at the virtuosity of each display, you find yourself yawning. Yet you
are not particularly tired. If Nancy T. were still alive and here in this room, she would
congratulate you on having found your “yawn center.” She’d urge you to give yourself
up to a full-bodied awareness of taking in air.
You unlink from the systematic approach and gravitate toward a table presided
over by a genial-looking black man. Which is how you come to be face to face with the
geometric creations of Brooklyn’s own Vernon Isaac. Among his specialties are
tetrahedrons, constructed with open centers. This permits them to be folded one after
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 298
discarded Metrocards, as well as other found materials. But Vernon’s dominant theme
this year is the World Trade Center – postcards of the towers folded into tetrahedrons
and interpenetrating. Indivisible. On top of one display, he has placed a small round
lucite container, a transparent reliquary for several whitish, moonlike pebbles,
purportedly bits of the actual WTC.
A short, plump woman pauses at Vernon’s table and takes one of his Vernogami
Originals business cards. Her nametag identifies her as a “first timer” at the
convention, but her tee shirt reads: I fold under pressure.
• • •
As gravity catches up with you, so, apparently does gravitas. It is not so much
that you are less easily moved, but that you find your transformations occurring to a
slower rhythm. If you were a pendulum, your swings would be getting longer. More
so than you could ever have imagined.
• • •
Summer’s here and there’s no AC in this subway car. Besides a tendency toward
hypertension, among your genetic legacies from Bea are abundant sweat pores on your
face and forehead. In this weather, you schvitz like a fountain. David Dinkins did too.
In fact, the primary image you retain of this otherwise phlegmatic man is of him
mopping his brow with the white handkerchief always kept close to hand in his breast
City of alphabites – read, unread and indecipherable: too many by half. Would
anyone notice if one morning the signs for Brooklyn Battery Tunnel read Roland
Barthery Tunnel? What if one entered the Holland Tunnel on Canal Street and came
out in Leiden? The most popular organ of print information among legions of young,
can one say professional? Gothamites is Time Out – a name that gestures, like a breeze
in static air, to the acute absence at the core of things.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 299
Nearly every descriptive trope of New York, from Phelps Stokes to Frank O’Hara
to John Lindsay and back again considers the city as crazed, confused and chaotic, as
though this were its nature and destiny combined. It is not that you feel its
atmospherics as less “New York” now, only that in your time of witness, you have
never felt the city yearning so much to live another way. Is this pure projection? Or a
wish fulfillment wider than your own, a sigh for what we feel we cannot claim: And
there’s another side to this life I’ve been living. And there’s another side to this life…
The publicist at Routledge calls, mentions a recent review of After the WTC… –
positive toward your contribution, but mixed on the book as a whole. And, she says,
Philip Lopate will be doing a review in Metropolis. Oy vay. Shades of two summers
ago, when Lopate slammed Divided… in the self-same publication. Back then he labeled
the parallel you drew between the abstract, distanced-from-huma-scale worlds of the
terrorist and master builder as “bullshit.”
You responded, of course. Had to. It was an ad hominem attack, with no pretense
of professionalism. Plus, this is New York, and when someone gets in your face – well,
you gotta represent. Metropolis, to its credit, and your surprise, printed your rebuttal in
its entirety. What survives today is a dim resonance of your disappointment in
Lopate’s failure to connect. Naïvely, you’d assumed, given your mutual enmeshment
with the stuff of the city and its narratives, that his words about your book would carry,
however critically packaged, something of the spirit of a fraternal handclasp. Go figure.
You owe him though for pushing you, however unwittingly, to elaborate, rather than
retract your initial argument. But what got you to write the essay was forensics, pure if
not simple. Not long after 9/11, the story came out in the press that Mohammad Atta,
putative lead hijacker and WTC unbuilder, had been trained as an urban planner.
And you remember, when you were working on the text of Divided… how the
idea of architectural terrorism as a Janus faced creature came straight at you out of the
blue, leapt from the materials themselves, in whatever draft it was – three, four, or five
– as you sat one afternoon at Table 4. The frisson that accompanied this realization
came closely attended by the question: Can one say such a thing? You’d looked round
the room trying to make eye contact with someone, just to discharge the energy in a
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 300
frisson, more powerful still, that indeed you had hit upon a morsel of truth and the
mute gods of language had picked you to put it into words, so it wasn’t so much a
question of whether you could say it, so much as how to articulate the message in the
clearest, most economical, least compromised way.
Then only a short year after Lopate’s dis, theory turned to fire: Yama and Atta,
born as twins of the same egg, consumed by their relationship to those towers, one
metaphorically, the other in flesh itself.
All this comes to you before you doze in the mid-afternoon torpor wherein the
image comes of the dim interiors of enormous, unfinished, concrete chicken coop-like
structures, which your dream knowledge somehow equates with Donald Trump. You
are aware too, that these vast telescoping caverns are to be dynamited by the authorities
almost immediately – this is the last sight you’ll have of them – barely illuminated and
concatenating on and on in rectilinear repetition as far as the eye can see. Unlike
Yamasaki’s Priutt-Igoe housing project – which the poor of St. Louis had to endure
living in for twenty years – they are being blown up before they are inhabited. Not
because they have failed to function, but because it is inescapably evident that there is
something about them which is plain wrong. And these impressions come very swiftly,
and without benefit of empirical thought – so fast that you only realize you have shut
your eyes, when suddenly, you awaken.
From down the street you can see them for blocks: fluttering over the awning of
the Chelsea Square coffee shop on 23rd Street and Ninth, the stars and stripes, and the
Twilight: over the sloping grass down toward the circle playground and all
along the south side of 25th Street, hundreds of fireflies.
Location, location, location: the fragrance.
Into your head pops the title for a book. Will you ever write it? The ‘90s: The
Death of Hope, and the Street.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 301
• • •
p.m. He sits foursquare on the downtown #6, head and upper body responding
to the call of the rap hissing through his headphones. Wristwise, a Rolex. On his feet,
Air Nikes, but not pristine, these are work shoes. Around his neck, on a silver chain, a
miniature hand grenade. Its facets diamond pavéed, the little pineapple sways against
his sternum. He stands to get off, turns toward the door, hikes his baggy, knee length
shorts. On his tee shirt, the emblem of a laborer’s local. He’s a broad man, not tall
either, and bow legged, but he moves too fast for you to read his back – it’s a blur, the
graphic, the surrounding type: something about the wreckage at Ground Zero,
something about the flag.
• • •
Hearts hardened. Boots blackened. Inevitabilities prolonged.
• • •
You stand in the doorway of the Pink Pony on Ludlow Street, just south of
Houston. You’ve come to hear the music, but it’s early yet and though it’s raining, the
fresh air to be had on the sidewalk pulls you outside. But the atmosphere smells of
money too. This not the Lower East Side of your yout’. Across the street in a nearly
empty restaurant, a waitress in black standing near the bar raises her arms and stretches
her body nearly into a bow. How long this gesture takes you are not sure, but in this
moment, it seems possible that, though things still look the same, the entire universe
has changed its nature. The rain falls harder now. Dave glances at his watch
wondering, you suppose, whether his crowd will show up, and when or if, or Paul, the
other tall, lean singer-songwriter in this double bill, will climb out of a cab, or emanate
from the street. And so you stand in the doorway of the Pink Pony looking at one
another’s faces, and then survey up and down the block, shift your eyes here and there,
take in details, but keep the gazes moving, in anticipation that perhaps now, right now,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 302
without alarm. Whatever it is, you’ll know it when you meet it.
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