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- June 21 – Early Morning
- June 22 – Early Morning
- July 4
- July 7 – Basel
- July 10 – Venice
As of yesterday, Gwen’s a graduate of PS11. This morning it occurs to you that
her seven years there, pre-K through 5th grade, more or less coincide with the span of
this book. No, the math’s not that neat. You wrote your first entry nine months before
Gwen started school, when she was still spending several days a week at Peggy Rey’s.
If they gave McArthur’s for child-care, Peggy would deserve one.
Somehow Peggy managed to integrate the disparate energies of whichever kids
were in the room on any given day into a mélange of creative play and respect. Five
days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. Just drop your ‘em off for all or part of the
workday. Pay by the hour, one reasonable rate. A New York City phenomenon, a
hothouse of humane interaction in a tiny rent-controlled studio: Peggy, her two
muscular, face-slurping boxers, and anywhere from eight to thirteen kids, infants to
three-year olds, all inhabiting that little room. Some mornings, you’d come in and her
late-night fashion model son would be sleeping up in the loft bed while the young ‘uns
scrambled around below.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 374
It was a crazy scene, but you credit Peggy with a large share of making Gwen the
unaffected social animal she is. She started off among the youngest, and ended up as
one of the group’s big sisters. And it’s where she met her still-close friend Daphne.
How would you have ever gotten by, written what you wrote, without knowing Gwen
was OK at Peggy Rey’s?
Between rain showers, the graduate, nearly 11, takes off for the playground with
some of her classmates, Laura, Charles, Nicky, all of them, by coincidence, headed next
fall for the same middle school. Old enough to negotiate the neighborhood by
themselves now, they take their freedom where they may. Crossing those streets,
leaping those thresholds.
Stuck for morning coffee cash you cadged two dollars from Gwen’s allowance
money and left a post-it IOU. When you were Gwen’s age, now and again Jack would
pilfer your stash and later claim he’d forgotten. Perhaps he had. Either way, the money
was gone. So there is a sense of double payback when you return, often without her
being aware of its having been missing, whatever amount it was you borrowed. Each
of the two or three times you’ve taken and repaid one of these mini-loans, a knot of
anger has slipped within, and you’ve felt in the same moment both more worthy of
Gwen’s trust and aware of the distinction between your father and yourself, as father.
Funny buggers, human beings – the wider meanings we give, and take, from little
Two men enter the café intent on a business meeting, the first, a small fellow.
But his partner’s so huge he can shut the door behind him from damn near halfway
across the room. Are you hallucinating or does the little wicker chair he has his eye on
tremble slightly at his approach?
• • •
p.m. Southwest out your bedroom window, there’s a narrow space between two
neighboring Penn South buildings. Twice a year, the sun sets dead center in the gap.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 375
place around the summer solstice. You’ve got a feeling it’ll be this evening.
You wait for the traffic on Ninth Avenue to pass so you can cross the street to the
café. Has someone appropriated “your” table? No. Too early for anyone not headed
straight to work to be abroad on such a rainy day. Roberto’s behind the counter
wearing a white hairnet, heating up the grill for the morning’s first crêpe. No other
customers, so Sulieman, Eyoko and Kimsey vie briefly for the opportunity to make your
You glance toward the blue awning of the Aphrodite Dry Cleaners – ”where
cleaning is an Art” – on the other side of the street. Too small to see from here, but in
the window stands a plaster Venus de Milo about a foot and a half tall, and flanking
her, on separate little stands, a miniature frock and suit jacket cunningly made of wire
mesh. The garments seem just the right scale for her to put on. But why the jacket? Is
Venus a cross dresser, or does it wait for an unseen David to appear?
Imperturbable in the downpour, the manager of the drycleaner walks diagonally
across the street under her umbrella, opens the shop and disappears inside. Until this
moment, you’d thought the idea of naming a drycleaner after Aphrodite pretty silly, but
now it occurs to you that this might be in homage to the manager herself. No American
woman walks like that. For the moment you cast her as Venetian, though odds are
we’re talking someplace Slavic, or middle-European.
Your coffee arrives. Suddenly you feel affluent and order a pain au chocolat. If
you were to return to this table tomorrow, and the day after, you would probably find
out what country Aphrodite comes from. Someone knows. All this and more. Col
tiempo. With time. You might, some morning, even walk into the store.
Happy summer rain. Hot weather to come.
• • •
p.m. You walk along the West 4th Street subway platform. As you near the exit
onto Waverly Place, the largest, fattest rat you’ve seen since you were a kid hops calmly
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 376
basement of your house on West Broadway, now La Guardia Place, and sometimes
when you looked out into the covered alley between your back building and the front
one, you’d spot a really big one going about his business in the same unhurried way.
But for some reason you never encountered such a fellow face to face the thousands of
times you went in and out. What would you have done if you had?
Midway down the stairs, the rat pauses as if considering whether to wait by the
express tracks, or on the local side. He seems absolutely sanguine about your approach.
As the distance between you closes to a few yards, you bear slightly to your right. He
maintains his course. Making no apparent effort to avoid you he gains the platform and
strolls, if a rat can stroll, in a wide semi-circle. Then he noses about the base of a
column, reverses direction, and eventually vanishes into the darkness of the tunnel’s
catwalk, heading north.
You walk upstairs into the late afternoon light, half creeped out, half feeling you
have just encountered a being of considerable gravitas, a true patrician, a privileged
citizen of a parallel, sovereign realm. The lighted areas of the subway, and above them,
your collection of streets and personal outposts along the way are so familiar you could
almost navigate them in your sleep. But this fellow lives in two worlds, and one of
them you can only imagine.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 377
GROOVE TON CHEMIN
July 2 – To Paris
Exactly at what moment did you notice the way you’ve come to live? – with a
strange baffle, a kind of buffering between you and all else, as though you had grown a
full-body cataract, an opacity over your whole sense of things? You recall once having
felt vividly, but your inputs seem all referred now, as if in passing through a protective
medium their essence has been deflected and glances off, diffuses impalpably. Once, at
least in memory, what you experienced might strike some sounding board within you
as deep as waves could go, resonate, and became part of your molecular self. Failing to
reach your insides now, do the rebuffed sensations fly off in search of a more permeable
When you were younger, when you were that more permeable soul, you’d have
been grateful for a bit of layering between the you and the it, but now you’d welcome
the opportunity to drop your guard, rework the barrier into an easy-woven cloak. It
would sit lighter on your shoulders too.
The strangest part is that you had no real sense of the accretions layering up – the
process was too incremental to be recognized until it had advanced past the point
where you could contest it. You dimly realize too, abstractly, that your present state is
bound up with grief over the fate of your city, its inextricable connection to your five
minutes of literary fame and subsequent plunge back into obscurity, the truly frightful
crimes your country keeps committing, the psychic and logistical after-effects of
Wilma’s death. But none of this matters. As Bloch says, the sick man only wants to be
This first morning you wake up in your little hotel room in Asnières just
northwest of Paris and a part of you breathes easier, while the rest seizes up, becomes
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 378
bathroom floor, push a door you ought to pull, stub your toes on a low, unnoticed step
between the bath and bedroom. And you feel stiff as a board when you rise out of a
chair you’ve sat in for a few minutes. Katie still asleep. Gwen too, though she turns
round in the single bed, still clutching her stuffed otter. If you time it right, you’ll get
back just as they’ve finished showering and brushing out.
Down the stairs then, as if you were loose-limbed. Soften your footfalls on the
last flight and scoot past the breakfast room doorway before M. Claude or Emilia notice
you. If they did, you’d have to crank up your still-asleep French and explain why you
are going out for coffee.
Off down the street toward the Rallye café, past the little alimentation, not yet
open, and the boulangerie already doing a brisk business. An old Eurythmics tune
begins to play in your head and you croak out joke lyrics in an old man’s voice: “I feel
like I’m seventy again.” Somewhere in your body though, the change of atmosphere
takes hold. On the corner opposite, in the pharmacy window, a new skin-care poster
has replaced the one you remember. Why not? It’s a different summer. You can pre-
A slow start to the morning, but it’s agreed: you all want to head for the Marais.
Quick trainride into St-Lazare. Some wandering, still jet-lagged, meet up with
Rosemary, and together into the Hôtel Carnavalet, the museum of the city of Paris.
Rooms full of paintings, shop signs, scale models and vernacular treasures of the city’s
pasts. Then you cross a threshold and arrive quite unexpectedly in the jaw-dropping
surround of an entirely other era: the reconstituted wall and ceiling murals of the Salle
New York, the Queen of Sheba and her entourage prepare to depart for King Solomon’s
court. At the head of the procession rides Sheba herself – side-saddle upon the back of
the most brobdingnagian of a score of elephants.
A throng has assembled to mark her leave-taking: clusters of acrobats, scribes
and their monkeys, a gaggle of entrail-reading priests. From whichever angle, no
matter where in the room you stand, you find yourself amidst her retinue. The smoke
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 379
bower and drifts into an illusory sky. Bold forms, deftly rendered in tri-tone: black and
deep red varnish upon a field of white gold leaf. This is the work of José Maria Sert, a
Catalan of hallucinatory imagination and loose, confident brushwork – a sort of Tiepolo
for the Jazz Age.
How is it that such a masterpiece escaped your prior notice? Both you and this
painting existed – the latter since the early ‘20s – yet until now, you never met! And on
the heels of this crazy notion, a strange surge of optimism: your eyes are not entirely
insensible to the new. You are still capable of enchantment.
Hard to imagine that Gwen is due for another birthday soon. For her tenth last
year, she saw the Bastille Day fireworks from a terrace on the Tuilleries overlooking
Place de la Concorde. Perched on your shoulders. She’s too heavy to carry that way for
long now, and soon she’ll be too cool to allow you to lift her up. That’s how it should
be if you’ve done your job.
Her nearly-eleven-year-old eyes home in on different things than yours do. You
go to the same places, walk the same streets and she notices an altogether different set
of signifiers. And what she finds is always grist for her mill. While you browse the Rai
music CDs in the giftshop of the Institute du Monde Arabe, she sets about teaching
herself French the old fashioned way – by reading the comics. Between the images,
idioms and the slapstick humor, Gwen’s hooked – she must have one of the books in
the Malika series, even if it costs nearly eight Euros. She offers to pay for it out of her
allowance. We’ll see, you say. Have a look for yourself.
Not difficult to spot the protagonist: a shapely, streetwise French-Algerian girl
on the cusp of womanhood. With her lower lip set in a perpetual pout and pigtails
sticking up like rabbit ears, Malika Secouss (earthquake) – wears outsized black
parachute boots and romps with unrestrained joie de vivre through an ongoing comedy
of errors set in and around her home turf, La Cité des Pâquerettes (daisies), a prison-like
Corbusian highrise ghetto. Backed up her motley copains and dogged by her brainy
kid sister Zouli, Malika’s an authentic late adolescent – brash, impulsive and deeply
clueless. But, like a proper heroine, she triumphs by pluck or luck, and never fails to
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 380
virtue of a well-aimed kick in the groin: GNOK!
Ten or so books in the series, all written and drawn by Tehem, but this is the
particular one Gwen wants. Terrific visual style, lots of vernacular-filled word balloons.
Eight Euros! Well, it’s big, full color and hardcover. Sure, why not? Carpe bloody
diem. And some postcards for you and Kate.
A cloudburst as you walk along the embankment near Notre Dame, so you take
shelter under Pont Neuf. When the rain passes, Katie steps out and starts to sketch the
grotesque faces carved into the masonry of the bridge arches. Clever how they’ve
hidden the lighting behind panels painted the color of the stonework itself.
You wipe a bench dry and sit with Gwen waiting for Katie to finish. Gwen reads
Malika and you quarter a peach. Katie puts away her pad. As you get up you notice
you’ve been sitting on some magic-markered graffiti, nearly worn-away by the friction
of your and countless other asses. But still visible: Je décrète l’état de bonheur! “I decree a
state of happiness.”
A fountain by designed by Jean Tinguely, “Fasnachts Brunnen.” A dozen black-
painted machine-creatures inhabit a rectangular pool about eighteen inches deep. Each
apparatus does its own thing: one splashes, another mills; others spout or spoon water,
one swings a kind of miner’s lantern to and fro. The individual mechanisms repeat a
particular motion, but because each is set to a rhythm all its own, the ensemble
produces endless variations.
It’s hypnotically playful in daytime, but underlit at night, the fountain’s denizens
take on a deliberate quality, like a gang of flesh and blood workers – somewhere
between automaton and autonomous – and not entirely benign.
On your way out of town, you don’t take the tram straight to the bahnhof.
Instead you head for the ferry across the Rhine. This means trundling your luggage a
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 381
but you’ve only this one opportunity and the effort looks to be worthwhile.
The ferries are like nothing you’ve seen before. Tethered to cables stretched
across the river – their sole motive power is the river’s current. East to west, west to
east. Either way you go with the flow.
When you reach the dock, the ferry is stationed at the far shore so you ring the
bell and it comes across to get you. The boats ride low in the water, seat about a dozen.
You step in first, stow the bags, then give Gwen and Katie each a hand aboard. The
ferry-woman reverses the tiller and off you go. Midstream, look back. A half dozen
intrepid bathers clamber down the embankment, plunge into the water and ride the
fast-moving water a few hundred yards downstream. Then they find a landing, climb
the steps, jog back along the footpath and dive in again.
• • •
Thun – the lake, and then the mountains. Last night dream of pleasure boats.
Their masts and sails are long, slender feathers, like quill pens. They might be writing
on the sea. In the morning it begins to dawn on you: when you return in September,
you will have no packets of student work to respond to. Nor likely face and avalanche
of calls from the media about the World Trade Center. Not a lot of drama in a second
scores of them, tied to wrought iron balconies, stretched across narrow ramos,
ubiquitous as the laundry draped all round the campos, hung up in shop windows,
billowing out from the facades along the Canal Grande. Rarely a moment passes
between sightings. And thus, to navigate the city is to take up its visual chant for peace.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 382
The three graces inhabit Campo Santa Maria Formosa. You discover this when
you take your coffee at a table outside the café, before the sun fully catches the white-
pink of the campanile, gone pastel since Guardi painted it.
Ten yards distant, an astoundingly beautiful woman, brown-haired and
impeccably tanned sets up her fruit and vegetable stand. Silver hoop earrings and
Chinese red lipstick. She emerges from beneath the forest green umbrella, circles the
perimeter of her domain, a black shawl tied round her hips. Applies architectonics to a
pile of tomatoes, shakes lettuces out to maximum effusion, trims off brown leaves with
a scissors, palms the heads of cauliflowers as if lining up young children for a
Her partner appears, a compact man with a handsome, mobile face, close-
cropped hair and a couple of days growth of dark beard. He helps arrange the stock,
begins to sing, and for two or three stanzas, her voice joins his. The flow of people
through the campo accelerates steadily, and with it come a steady stream of customers.
From beneath the umbrella, the woman greets, banters, selects, weighs, fills sacks,
receives money and makes change. A momentary lull. She gazes out across the campo,
reaches into her blouse and adjusts her bra.
On your way here, just before crossing the Ponte del Ferali over a narrow canal,
you found your way blocked – the white-gloved palm of a policeman literally in your
face. Taken aback, you nearly reverted into New York whassup mode, but in the instant
saw the coffin, two men unloading it from a wheeled metal cart. Not a typical angular
coffin shape, rather a gray plastic box, hinged and latched, rounded corners giving it
the appearance of an elongated clam shell or a machine with which to press oversized
panini. Up the steps and over the bridge the men carried it, then set it down on the
opposite bank. One man returned to fetch the cart, onto which the coffin was lifted
again. The way clear, the policeman waved you across and you followed the little party
to the fondamenta of the Rio Santa Maria Formosa where the coffin was removed from
the cart again, and this time put onto the deck of a police boat. You don’t recall whether
the men stayed on or got off, but you have an indelible image of the dark oblong shape
against the red-brown planking as the launch, accelerating with a belch of diesel fuel,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 383
A dog emerges from beneath the chair of the man at the next table and breaks
your reverie. Small, whitish and woolly, the dog scents something. The man continues
to read the newspaper and sip his coffee. Did he buy the paper at the kiosk you passed
as you entered the campo? The interior of the kiosk lay in shadow, so all you could see
of the woman within it was a clean line of cheek curtained by wavy light brown hair. A
second grace. Suddenly, the little dog bolts, runs off to greet a brown-spotted
Dalmatian who, seeing his comrade dashing toward him, tugs free of his owner’s grasp.
“Eh!” The fellow’s shout sounds more like pro forma annoyance than genuine
rebuke. Nor does he not look particularly distressed as the two dogs bound round the
perimeter of the campo, the Dalmatian dragging his lead behind him, its handle as
bright a red as the fruit-seller’s lipstick. You glance over at the owner of the shaggy
little dog. He’s back at his reading, imperturbe. You’d scarcely noticed him before, but
come to think of it, he resembles your friend Wolfgang. You can’t imagine Wolfgang
owning a dog, nor living in Venice. Umbria’s more his style.
A strikingly handsome blonde woman pulling a cart behind her enters the
campo by way Calle Lunga. She parks close by the entrance to the church, unfurls a
blue and white striped umbrella, then crosses back across the campo to exchange hugs
with the grace of fruits and vegetables. When she returns to her cart, she begins to set
up shop. Ah, the grace of souvenirs. In no time at all, a cornucopia of wares:
sunshades, straw hats, velvety, pointed sequined wizard’s hats, sandals, batik scarves.
You didn’t see him leave, but the compact man is not at the fruit stand anymore.
Instead, another fellow’s appeared, seemingly from nowhere – young, agile, wearing
cut off jeans and sandals, curly-haired. His head seems huge, precarious atop his slight
body. Even in the shadows, a clever, playful spark to his eyes. He fills customers’ bags
with movements so fluid they seem like sleights of hand.
A woman walks past your table into the café – it’s the second grace, emerged
from the cave of her news kiosk. You hear her voice above the hubbub as she calls out
her order for a macchiato and falls into conversation with the bar’s owner, a garrulous,
raspy-voiced woman who banters with the clientele while her glum, silent husband
tends the counter. A man takes a paper from the kiosk’s rack and looks about for
someone to pay. The fruit and vegetable grace spots him and runs out from beneath her
umbrella to cover for her friend. It’s getting warm. You look toward the campanile and
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 384
strolls. All the time in the world. You look over at the fellow who reminds you of
Wolfgang. He’s still reading, the little white dog once again beneath his chair.
The rumble of another wheeled cart, this one dragged as one would a rickshaw,
by a young woman wearing green pants, a blue shirt and thick, yellow plastic work
gloves. A visored cap pulled low shades her face, almost masks her strong, clear
features. Her hair, the little you can see of it, orange red. The cart’s piled high with
trash bags. She must be hauling them to the garbage boat you saw on the rio, tied up
across from the police launch. Four graces, sure why not? – albeit this one’s passing
Your body says get moving. Bring your cup back to the bar, then stroll about the
campo. How is it possible for the souvenir vendor’s cart to have held such a quantity of
things? And she still hasn’t finished unpacking her wares. As you move past, your
reflection flashes in the mirror she’s set up so customers can satisfy themselves that they
are making just the right purchase.
A bell tolls from the direction of San Marco, too many strokes to count. The
whole campo is buzzing now. Yet another cart arrives, tall, oblong, propelled from
behind. Ah, it’s the fruiterer’s compact partner returned with a stand of his own. Head
down between his arms, he’s bent nearly double with the effort of pushing its weight
over the cobbles. Something immemorial in his gesture – he could be one of Pharaoh’s
slaves laboring to roll a stone block toward its pyramid. Atop the cart, perched like the
Queen of Sheba, a girl, perhaps eight years old with long brown hair. His daughter?
Seems so. Is the fruit grace her mother? The girl jumps down, runs toward the fruit
stand, but spies another girl around her age and abruptly changes course. Meeting, the
two girls put their heads together, entwine arms and stroll, as thick as proper
The fruit-seller’s partner begins to set up his concession. Ice cream. It’s just past
eight o’clock, but then with this sun, the place will heat up fast. In no time at all, he’ll
find customers. As tourists congregate, a queue may form.
Leaving the campo, you walk backward for a few yards. Long enough to see the
grace of souvenirs stretch up to hang one fringed shawl, and then another from the
spokes of her umbrella.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 385
• • •
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