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- August 6
- August 7
- August 12 – 2 to 4 a.m.
- August 13 – Ajat – Midafternoon
- August 17 – Early Afternoon
- August 18 – Leiden, Netherlands
- August 19
- August 20 – Haarlem
- August 20 – Early Afternoon
- August 27 – Paris
- September 13
- November 6 – Le G. – Early Morning
July 25 – Evening
For days you’ve seen posters along the local roads for a traveling circus – touring
all the nearby towns. You catch up with Cirque Ullman in Thenon just after nightfall,
wend your way through the crowd toward the chain of red wagons semi-circling the
ring, Gwen in the lead. Find three seats together, reasonably close to the action.
Barnum it ain’t, nor Big Apple – silly even to make the comparison, this is la France
profonde. You drift into a suspended state that matches the show’s unhurried pace,
when midway through, quite unexpectedly, comes its star turn: Katia et ses Fauves.
Compactly-built, with an exquisite oval face, Katia – whom you suspect, though not by
resemblance, is the ogre-like ringmaster’s daughter – puts the lions through their paces
with verve. But beauty’s time-honored dominion over savagery only serves as an
entrée. With the fauves returned to their cages and pacing in the background, Katia
delivers up a series of ever more complex and risky acrobatic and balancing stunts, her
movements so self-contained and precisely focused, she reminds you weirdly of
Rostropovich, the night you saw him perform solo at Royal Festival Hall thirty five
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 314
Audible gasps, some of them yours, at the completion of each feat, whereupon
she strikes a “tada!” pose – with a twist. Gazing out somewhere beyond the audience,
Katia offers a half smile, draws her hand across her face in a kind of arabesque, as
though both masking and revealing a subtle transformation of her features. “Regard,”
her gesture telegraphs, “I possess a wonderful secret, but my lips are sealed.”
An ancient market town, known for its inbreeding, and the resulting mad folks
and idiots. But you see no evidence of this until, urgently needing to pee, you stop into
a hole-in-the-wall bar on a side street, order a café, and fall into a conversation in
horrible franglais with three distinctly lupine fellows, one of them the patron, that
eventually works its way round to the putative craziness of George Bush. Seeing that
you are in accord with them, one of the men throws his arms around you, kisses you on
both cheeks, and embraces you like a brother. A great deal of genial, raucous laughter,
but it feels as though you’ve stumbled into a medieval farce, particularly as it begins to
dawn on you that all these guys look very similar indeed.
That encounter was a lagniappe. What you came to Sarlat for is the marché and
it’s an amazing one – most of it spread across the square, but continuing indoors,
enclosed by the nave of a half-destroyed gothic church, its vaulted arches soaring high
above the stalls. The immense doors are of modern vintage and made of burnished
industrial steel. Painted across them midway up, in bold fire-engine red letters, a quote
mixture of nostalgia and extreme anticipation.
Everywhere, each day, some sign calls you back to New York. Which is when
you remember you need to buy a gift for Juan and Maria’s newborn – not so newborn,
actually – four months old by now. Where are they – have they left for Germany yet?
Near the market, you find a shop that sells enameled cups and plates. Ah, here’s a little
white cup imprinted with ducks. A big handle, easy to grab. This’ll do the trick. Anna
Luna – that’s her name. You’ll see Juan at the café when you get back and give it to him
then. If they’ve already transplanted, no problem – it’s durable enough to send abroad
without fear of damage.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 315
Gwen’s had a little gap between her front teeth since the permanent ones
appeared. But she says it here, in the bathroom at : “Whenever I want to look at the
World Trade Center, I look in the mirror and smile.”
Work on the novel proceeds apace. What was called Year’s Utopia has become
Orogene. The good news is that most of the characters and plotlines will survive. But
this is not a revision, it’s got to be a full rewrite – language mowed down to the ground,
ploughed under – not a sentence left standing.
You promised Gwen that she could have her ears pierced when she turned ten.
She’s been lobbying for years, and now three whole weeks have passed since the official
date. Patience, patience. Only now, in Montignac, a little town where, under the right
circumstances, you can imagine spending the rest of your life, do means, motive, and
opportunity converge. Just past the bridge over the Vézère you spot a little jewelry
shop and cross the street to look inside the window. A tasteful selection of earrings.
Gwen fancies those studs there. It’s midday, but the shop is open. Enter. The bell on
the door tinkles, the jeweler comes forward to the counter.
Bonjour. Pantomime: do you pierce? Mais oui. Friendly, but serious.
This is the man into whose hands you are delivering the fate of your child’s ears. He
meets your eyes and you decide you trust him. He steps out of the room and quickly
returns wearing a white lab coat. Gently, but with precise formality, he sits Gwen in a
straight-backed chair, wipes her earlobes with alcohol, marks tiny dots on them with a
felt tipped pen, looks at her straight on to check their symmetry, raises the CO
pwok! – one’s done and she’s scarcely had time to blink. Pwok! number two, and c’est
un fait accompli. Fast and painless, not like in her mother’s day. Another Rubicon
crossed. How many more to go?
Gwen asleep inside, you and Katie drag chaise-longues thirty meters or so out
into the open meadow, cover up with blankets and gaze up at the sky. No lights
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 316
the meteor shower and a great visual stillness sets in. You wait what must be ten
minutes and wonder is that it – are they all done? And then, just as you’re glazing over,
eight or nine flash by in succession, from an unexpected quadrant of the heavens.
Katie’s annual birthday gift of Leonids.
Gwen frolics in the piscine – she’s found a couple of girls to play aquatic
volleyball with. Papa does his best to chill out, lies down on a towel at the edge of the
concrete perimeter, opens Bloch’s Principle of Hope. “Functionalist architecture reflects
and doubles the ice-cold automatic world of commercial society –“
A swallowtailed butterfly lights on his right knee. Tickles. What to do? Book
tented on his chest, he waits. It’s gorgeous. His breathing slows.
A great splash from the pool, someone’s cannonballed in at this end. No spray
hits, just displaced air. The creature’s flown.
Tomorrow to Brive, then by train through Paris, to Leiden. Begin to feel your
way toward a farewell.
These past weeks you’ve worked at the novel in a way you’ve rarely had the
opportunity to write before, intensely, but without a clock of obligations ticking loudly
in your ear, nor punctuation of alarms. So the metaphor’s come, and it’s fits Périgord,
that you’re cracking walnuts – each sentence is another hard little spheroid, and you’ve
got to find the seam of it, and apply pressure just so if you’re going to separate the shell
halves without damaging the meat inside. Bagsful of walnuts to go, far too many nuts
to count. But given what you’ve gotten done, so much more than you could’ve
accomplished in New York, there’s hope. And you’re grateful for it.
• • •
Evening. You noticed it the first day, but only now do you tilt the lamp to read
in full the handwriting penciled on the wall of the gîte, just to the right of the door.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 317
with a valentine heart made of red foil.
DE STRASBOURG DU 20 SEPT. 1939 AU 10 DEC.
VIVE L’ALSACE ET LA DORDOGNE
And their names:
No seats to be had three abreast on the Paris-Rotterdam train, so you take a place
on the aisle in the row just behind Katie and Gwen. Next to you in the window seat,
reading, a young woman, black, pretty in profile. She turns toward you once, smiles,
and you catch a flash from the small gold cross on the chain around her neck before she
returns to France Dimanche. You can’t resist the New York subway sidelong glance.
There are the towers afire, the iconic wreckage, the straight-on face of Mohammed Atta
and the boldface headline: “C’est l’armée americaine qui a détruit les tours du World
Trade Center!” Double take. Of all the gin joints in all the towns…
She’s either so absorbed she doesn’t notice, or doesn’t mind your peering over
her shoulder. Aha, the article is an interview with Thierry Meyssan, one of the authors
of The Frightful Lie. No way you read the fine type so you work at translating the
breakout box: Plus que bizarre: le passeport du pilote d’un avions meurtriers a été retrouvé
murderous airplanes was retrieved spotless from the wreckage.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 318
A new word learned in reading: saccade – rapid eye movements from one fixed
point to another.
Certainly not silent, these walls of Leiden. Starting high up and running across
and down a whole apartment building’s side at the corner of Langebrug and Diefsteeg:
Love is like water or the air
it cleans, and dissipates evil gasses.
It is like poetry too
and for the same reasons
Love is so precious
that if I were you I would
have it under lock and key –
like the air or the Atlantic or
– William Carlos Williams
The Blue Stone, laid down on Breestraat in the 14th century – at the crossroads of
the Hospital, Meethall, Woolhouse and Cloth Hall quarters – served as the town’s
gravitational center. From investitures to executions, every kind of public ceremony
was held above and around it. Dug up in modern times, it’s in the museum now.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 319
Paniers packed with lunch, you’re setting off to cycle from Leiden along the bike
path to the beach. Rich heads the procession, followed by Ellen, their two boys, Gwen,
Katie and yo. Nearly out of town when Rich pulls over, leans his bike against the
kickstand and trots into a shop. He’s out again in no time and bearing a bag from
which he presses into your hand, before you can you form a thought, a cold can of
Heineken. He snaps one open himself, hops back on his bike and resumes the lead,
looks back to make sure all the ducks are in line. Does he favor you with a wink?
Somehow you feel enormously uncoordinated, like Gerald Ford, trying to bicycle
and drink beer at the same time. Hot sun and the beginnings of a buzz. Along the path,
a sign points to Katwijk and it’s no exaggeration that you almost careen off the blacktop
and into the dunes. This is it, the same path you biked along with Justina, you nineteen
and she twenty, just met that morning at the Amsterdam youth hostel. You talk, she
laughs and decides to rent a bike. When the sun goes down, you’ll build a fire on the
beach, unzip your sleeping bags and spread them carefully one on top of the other.
They won’t stay that way long, twisted soon, and the sex, not her first, but yours, spiced
with sand. You’re way too fast, but thankfully Justina’s a tolerant soul, and anyway,
what’s youth for but quick rebounds?
Stars when the fire goes out.
Comes a flash in the dead of night. Two cops. Blinking, you catch the jist of
what they’re saying: it is forbidden to sleep on the beach. Ah, yes, you didn’t know.
It’s an awkward moment. But the year is nineteen sixty-eight. And in truth, there’s
nothing to get hung about. So they look at one another, shrug and then they’re off
down the strand, lightbeams sweeping to and fro before them. You remember thinking
if you had some dope, you’d have hooked them up.
The morning dawns gray. You and Justina cycle, headed vaguely toward Paris,
along a path flat as a pancake, past immense concrete bunkers, long abandoned – the
Nazi line of defense – facing out to sea.
At Hôtel Carnavalet, the city museum of Paris, a series of small engravings
records the panoply of les petits métiers: street peddlers circa 1630, each captioned with
his or her cry:
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 320
Des fin chappeau de papier à vandre! Fine paper hats for sale!
A pâtissier hawks Ratons tout chau’st! – cakes in the shape of rats.
And the fruitseller of four seasons calls out her vinegar, cabbage, radishes and
Heading home this afternoon. Coffee’s drained. Deep funk. Same as last year,
only worse. Did church bells ring unnoticed, or did the old tune just pop into your
“Go so far and no further,” sing the sad bells of Asnières
“Pass through, pass through,” call the clear bells of Paris
“No life here, no life here,” toll the green bells of Ajat
“We never stop ringing!” boast the stout bells of Leiden
“No comfort, no comfort,” booms the great bell of New York
“Take courage, take courage,” sound the soft bells of Apt
“Approach and abide here,” urge the sweet bells of –
Emigrating by inches. Not there yet.
September 3 – Midmorning
The view from the living room window doesn’t lie. They’re not there any more.
Almost robotically, you begin writing an op-ed piece.
It is nearly one year after the fall of the World Trade Center. Gone
like the towers themselves is the once-smoldering mound they were
reduced to. We have arrived back at the bare foundation that supported
these structures, the enormous pit known as the Bathtub – sixteen acres
square and five stories deep – now rendered pristine. Yet we are, for all
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 321
on 9/11. How can that be?
In the months since their destruction, the nearly identical towers of
the WTC have been retroactively adopted as the preeminent symbol of
American culture. But the fact is that the trade towers – immense as they
were – existed for their entire thirty year lifespan without really making it
onto our collective radar. It has only been belatedly, posthumously, that
we’ve became aware of the enormous symbolic importance these particular
buildings held for us.
Until the towers were lost, few of us had an inkling of how deeply
identified we were with them. We’d made an enormous emotional
investment unconsciously, and took the objects of that investment for
granted, or simply ignored them. Today, one often hear a sentence begin
with “After the World Trade Center…”. This preamble serves as a kind of
verbal shorthand to indicate the threshold between a past forever closed
behind us, and a new era as yet undefined. But the phrase also contains
within it the tacit admission that the towers only really sprang into our
awareness at the moment of their obliteration.
Yet there they stood, for just over three decades, begging a host of
questions that, even now, months beyond their singular destruction, remain
at being marginalized by the aftermath industry? That it’s galling – all the years you
served as Boswell to these two very uncooperative Johnsons – to have your privileged
relationship with them ripped away, your painstaking research supplanted by a host of
Monday morning quarterbacks rehashing, without attribution, the narrative you
assembled – the parts of it, that is, that they find useful – as though they’d thought it all
up themselves? Worse yet, Divided… has vanished into obscurity for the second, and
final time. Books don’t come up for air thrice like drowning people do.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 322
Jesus, all it would have taken was for Basic to send out a new press release and
buy a couple of ads. Well, why the hell didn’t you do it then? I’m a writer, Jim, not a
publicist! See where that gets you.
First and foremost, how did World Trade Center come to be? What
forces converged to extrude, out of the bedrock of New York’s financial
district, twin buildings that made all previous architectural power plays
obsolete – structures so massive and blank-faced that even people well
disposed toward their design found it difficult to imagine that, on any given
workday, they were filled with humanity.
Conceived just after World War II, though in a very different form,
and actively planned as part of a wider Lower Manhattan redevelopment
scheme, the trade towers were constructed into the mid-nineteen sixties, at
the height of the Vietnam war. As I have documented elsewhere, quite
stunning abuses of power had been written into the life of these buildings at
every stage. Initiated by banker David Rockefeller and owned by the Port
Authority of New York and New Jersey, the WTC displaced an active and
longstanding merchant community called Radio Row and ultimately
expropriated sixteen acres of land from the jurisdiction of the City of New
York – a seizure upheld by the Supreme Court.
Once built, no feat of the imagination could begin to domesticate the
trade center. So there it stood, isolated and immune to mediation –
telegraphing not just New York’s greatness, but also America’s claims to
global supremacy – asserting in two emphatic strokes of skyscraper
domination, both the threat and the promise that America intended to rule
Did Americans see the World Trade Center this way? Probably most
of us, even New Yorkers, did not. Even now, the idea of being the frontline
city of an empire just doesn’t square with our self-image. But the horror of
the towers crumbling ought to have cracked open even the most resolutely
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 323
In the World Trade Center’s short and brutal history, before its
catastrophic return to earth, we can observe the mechanics of unchecked
power on the rise. Between the heroics of construction and the heroics of
rescue, search as we may, we will be hardpressed to pull a thread of
everyday humanity from the fabric of the tale. If we do find one, it
immediately shrinks to insignificance beside the drama of the giants. The
fact that at no point could the towers be brought into scale with their
surroundings should tell us something about what our attitudes were when
we thought it right and proper to build them.
Our awakening, like sleepwalkers, to the discovery that they had so
powerful a hold on our imaginations, may offer clues as to the sort of
people we have become in the intervening years. Prior to raising new
buildings on the WTC’s “hallowed ground,” we would do well to listen to
the echoes of what the towers, even in their absence can tell us.
In doing so, let us permit ourselves the possibility of acknowledging
the horrific equation between the vast quantity of materiel that comprised
these buildings: steel, glass, concrete – millions of tons of it – and the literal
pulverization of thousands of people. Let us take into our deepest
awareness how nearly instantaneously the seemingly impervious mass of
these buildings turned to smoke and dust, and with such extra-human force
that we were often denied even the grim affirmation of witnessing the
bodies of the dead being brought out of the ruins. Of the majority of the
victims, there is simply nothing left to bury, no physical evidence to ground
our shock and grief. Our eyes saw such prolific images of destruction, yet
there is so little human evidence to wrap our minds around.
If we can find some way to grasp, in its totality, the inhumane-ness of
the World Trade Center both as it went up and came down, perhaps we can
use this knowledge to feel our way toward a vision of what might be
sensible to build where it stood. More broadly, we might begin to ask – and
perhaps one day answer in a wiser way than the trade towers did – the
question of how to design cities that are workshops for coexistence, not
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 324
see eye to eye? What would the architecture of peace look like?
Aw, fuggedaboudit! What were you thinking? Better keep to your books –
however adverse the conditions, they’ve a better shot at seeing the light of print one
You insist on getting out of town, spending the day at Jones Beach. Katie
accedes, Gwen’s delighted. Much indolence until late afternoon when you commence,
at Gwen’s behest, to help her build a sandcastle. She digs like anything, steps back
from time to time to keep get some perspective on the grand design. You don’t think,
just scoop with your hands, feel the friction, the grit of sand under wearing-down
fingernails. Pat things into shape: towers, a moat and a tunnel for the water to flow
through underneath a castle if an incoming wave breaches the trench you’ve dug
parallel with the shore.
“When did you start?” You look up at a dayglo orange bikini suspended in
midair. So close is her tanned skin tone to the darkening sky that you have to blink a
few times to make out the woman’s face.
“Around an hour ago,” says Gwen.
You stand up, suddenly self-conscious, legs stiff. Brush off your knees and
appraise your labors. Though there’s no ziggurat, something about it reminds you of a
Sumerian city. “Nice,” says the woman. Bright flash of smile.
central well within the castle. You get back down to work, build a breaking wall to
guide the water into the channel. It seems the tide is coming in because you have to
buttress the walls evermore frequently. Still you continue raising the superstructure.
It’s an art finding the exactly right mix of sand and water that produces a solid tower,
neither too granular, nor too soggy, when the bucket’s overturned. By the time you
leave, the castle is many-turreted.
Sometime in the dark tonight, the waves will sweep and take care of it all – with
infinite patience, rearrange the sand to its cyclic purposes again.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 325
Pictures are our own surfacing in another place. So said Franz Marc, via Bloch in
Principle of Hope.
Some time during the night, amidst the potted lime trees in the Spanish Patio of
the Metropolitan Museum, a larger than lifesize 15th century marble statue of Adam
(grasping an apple) keeled over and shattered into bits large and small – in any case
many. Apparently the plywood base, only two years old but poorly built, gave way
beneath the sculpture, a putative masterwork of the transition between the middle ages
This time, no seductive rib-girl precipitated the Fall of Man, just bad carpentry.
He crashed to the ground unheard, to be discovered later by a guard on his rounds.
The Met puts a brave face on for the Times – promising to restore Adam to his former
state so flawlessly that “only the cognoscenti will know.”
You recall the sculpture well, passed it dozens of times, but are certain that the
figure possessed a navel. So how could he have been Adam? Or was there an Adam
before Adam? In which case this Adam may not be all he’s cracked up to be. Perhaps
they’ll restore the statue sans navel – more authentic that way.
Same paper, different page. A fatal accident during a trial run of the Port
Authority’s new JFK airport monorail link. As the train negotiated a steep turn, the
sixteen thousand pounds of concrete ballast – intended to simulate the mass of human
passengers – shifted radically and crushed the motorman. Another marvel of
engineering, brought to you by the folks who dug the hole and raised the WTC.
• • •
Look out the window toward nightfall. The sykyline’s gotten very active. Not so
much with construction as communication among buildings. More birdlike, their calls
to one another. Though we can’t hear them, its clear they’re sentient, that they
understand, in their way, what’s going on. You wonder what they think of the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 326
plays its resources for all it’s worth. Do they read the signals in the atmosphere and
talk about them? If only we could still hear the ground and read the sky. Look up.
what drama transpires there in the play of light and shadow. And even at the horizon.
Or what would be, if you could see it.
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