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Afternoon espresso. Imprinted into the white porcelain of your cup, a brand
logo of a coffee pot drinking a cup of itself.
• • •
Once there were three pawnshops doing business in the Gheto Nuovo. Each one
gave a different colored ticket: red, green and black. Who knows what haughty fellows
– perhaps even members of the Council of Ten – slunk through the gates after dark in
search of an “uncle with three balls” to save them from embarrassment?
• • •
In the San Marco mosaics, when God creates Adam, he makes him very black
Hallucinations in the marble floor patterns – Escher eat your heart out. In the
golden mosaic bays of the entranceway, concrete and realist imagery: the Tower of
Babel depicted as a fourteenth century construction site.
• • •
The city is depopulating fast – too expensive now for its natives to live in. And
ground floors can’t be inhabited because of the danger of floods. But Venice still has its
beauty to trade on. What sort of coin will New York exchange when it’s no longer a
center of raw economic power?
This morning, you fall into a strange broken English-Italian conversation with
the desk clerk at your hotel. Somehow the subject of l’albero di Cucagnia comes up, the
tree of Cockayne, a slippery pole that must be climbed to claim one’s prize.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 386
• • •
On the vaporetto, you boost Gwen up so she can sit on the luggage rack and look
out over the sea of heads. She points to a sign riveted to the bulkhead and asks what it
says. What to do in case of emergency. If a person falls overboard, you must inform
the captain at once. If it is too crowded on the deck for you to reach the wheelhouse,
shout Uomo di mare! as loud as you can.
• • •
Evening of the day before Gwen’s eleventh birthday. As dusk falls, you walk
along the Fondamenta Nuove searching for a restaurant where you’d eaten a wonderful
calamari and polenta back in 1991. What got you there was a writing fellowship you’d
won earlier that year. Instead of doing something sensible like paying off your credit
card you headed for Europe. It was Katie who insisted on Venice. You’d seen its effect
on other northern eyes, as in Turner’s paintings, but never imagined that the experience
would definitively alter your own way of seeing, down to what feels like a
physiological level. That first time, making your way from the train station toward the
Canal Grande you damn near walked into the water. No hallucinogen had ever
rearranged your visual consciousness so profoundly, or permanently.
But both Venice and the memory are tricky and you cannot find the restaurant
you’re searching for. Katie too recalls that it was near a vaporetto stop and faced out
onto an island. Perhaps it was not on the Fondamenta Nuove, but rather on one of the
Rivas with a view of S. Georgio Maggiore instead of Isola di S. Michele. As the three of
you walk back toward your hotel, Gwen spots another place you’d hoped to find,
trattoria Da Bruno, so it’s through that door you go.
The place has changed, of course. Dark walls repainted in a lighter shade and
overall the place seems less like a cave where a bear named Bruno would hang out.
Younger waiters too than the ancient fellow you remembered from before, and on the
menu the spaghetti dish with squid ink that used to be called “black shirt” has been
politically blanched into “alla Veneziana.”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 387
A carafe of wine arrives. Uncharacteristically you guzzle down two glasses and
are working on a third before eating anything at all with the result that even the piebald
sunburned skin of the tourist woman at the next table begins to look delicious. And
then, goddam, you flash back on dinner at Jonathan and Elizabeth’s Rhinecliff palazzo
the weekend after 9/11 – how you coughed your way through Katie’s succulent brisket
with cranberries and orange sauce, and riced potatoes, the energy draining out your
feet, overcome by the sense of getting sicker by the instant, of your lungs drowning in a
cold, dry storm of granular concrete. You’d felt shame then, that’s not too strong a
word for it, mixed with resignation, because you simply could not rise to the
conversation round the table, so absent from your awareness was anything but an
ebbing sense of life. Even Katie and Gwen seemed to exist at a terrible remove. But
now, assisted by the passage of time and awash in wine, the recollection only registers a
twinge, the kind reserved for long gone toothaches – both the molar and its vanished
nerve reduced to a ghost sensation.
Across the table, Katie and Gwen are talking. You could enter their dialogue at
any time, but it doesn’t feel urgent. Nobody is drifting. It’s all hanging together. So
what comes into mind is a canvas you saw yesterday at Ca’ Renzonnico by an
eighteenth century painter, Antonio Diziani, whose work you hadn’t known of before.
shows a young boy bound by strings to a flock of birds, which are also tethered to one
another. Upwards the birds fly, pulling the boy out of the bucolic farmyard in which he
stood and into the sky. A woman runs toward him, his mother likely, crying out in
distress. But already he’s too high up for her to bodily intervene. Nothing visible to
stop his ascent. And Bertoldino himself, who may have set the whole thing in motion
by tying himself to the birds and perhaps the birds to one another, now looks very
regretful at the turn events have taken.
Then you came upon a gallery you remember vividly from twelve years ago, full
of the frescos of Giandomenico Tiepolo, son of and assistant to the renowned
Gianbattista. From what you’ve seen of Giandomenico’s work, he could have
continued cranking out the ceiling apotheoses his father perfected: noble couples and
other personages ascending into gorgeously beclouded heavens escorted by Apollo or
Athena, or else symbolic figures of Fame, Virtue, and the four continents, invariably
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 388
direction as he matured. Though his paintings too are fantastical and allegorical, he
lavished his attention – and, you sense, his love – on more vernacular and earthbound
subject matter. His images chronicle the many lives and deaths of Pulcinella, a
grotesque, hunchbacked Comedia figure in white costume, beak-nosed mask and
conical hat. Usually Giandomenico depicts several Pulcinellas, sometimes whole tribes
of them, engaged in some absurd play among themselves. At other times, his
Pulcinellas mix in among polite and everyday society. Wherever they appear, it is
impossible to distinguish one Pulcinella from another. But this uniformity, anonymity
even, leads to a paradox. For the Pulcinellas possess a range of gestures and
expressions so highly nuanced that, upon close observation, each one betrays an
individuality all the more moving for its being so well concealed.
You spend a good deal of time with the each painting in the series, but the one
that arrests you longest – so long, in fact that you lose consciousness of time – is an
image containing only one Pulcinella. A crowd scene set in a park. Giandomenico has
painted himself, looking foolish and standing behind his elegant father into an
assemblage of contemporary Venetian men, women and children that presses in from
both sides of the composition. They wait their turn to stand before a little circular
structure and peek through a pair of eyeholes cut into the wall. Somehow, one senses
that Pulcinella, the only figure not angling for a view, is the instigator of this spectacle.
Giandomenico does not show us what these people are so eager to behold. But the
explanatory note next to the painting says that they have in order come to peer into “a
kind of cosmorama, where they will see pictures and scenes of a distant world.”
It’s been ten years and more since you read All That is Solid Melts into Air. But
the image that remains most immediate from Marshall’s book is his description of a
fantastical mural, myriad faces and motives of the city’s lives, painted along the walls of
the Cross Bronx Expressway, visible to all who drive past. Each time a reader creates
this mural in her or his mind, something important happens. It is not as though Robert
Moses’s great wound upon the city heals up and vanishes into thin air. That is wish-
fulfillment. Somehow though, the imagined mural expands, manyfold, the story it is
possible to tell oneself about what the Expressway, and the city it cuts through, is.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 389
There’s danger always in turning the symbolic into the literal. But might this not
be the time to build a New York Cosmorama? It needn’t – oughtn’t – be a grandiose
affair. A modest edifice like the one in Giandomenico’s painting would do fine.
Prospect park seems as good a place as any, though location doesn’t really matter.
Wherever it starts out, it could migrate through all five boroughs. The important thing
is that everybody gets a turn.
So what’s inside? Don’t know yet. You’ll just have to see.
Twilight gondola ride to celebrate Gwen’s eleventh birthday. Big luxury – the
sort of thing you couldn’t imagine doing if it weren’t for her. Your gondolier is tall,
tanned, stunningly handsome – and skilled. When he breaks into song, the voice is
unforced and strong. But he sings in fragments only, and at seemingly random
moments, as though his phrases are triggered by some unseen, intermittent impulse.
Grand finale, the glide under the Rialto and out the other side. Gwen delighted, in her
straw hat, gracious, at ease.
can easily be transferred from one gondola to another, Carved from a hard wood, in
accordance with the height and proportions of the individual gondolier, he will use it
for a whole working lifetime. But gondoliers retire early, because their backs give out.
Some moments need to be written down as soon as they happen, if only as
evidence to be unpacked at a later date that you didn’t dream them. That said, two
days in Salzburg sounded fine when Katie, planning the trip, suggested stopping there
on the way to Vienna. Mozart’s birthplace, an Alpine surround. Your lungs expanded
in anticipation of the purity of the air. The name itself lilted on the tongue. On top of
which you remembered – incorrectly it turned out – having heard about a palace there
with Tiepolo ceilings.
Thus by train northeast from Venice through the Dolomites – the view so
visually overwhelming that when you change trains at Villach and head into the
Austrian Alps, you already feel lightheaded.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 390
Hot in your new compartment. Will the AC kick on when the train gets moving?
No. Check the other compartments. Same deal. The conductor confirms that the
ventilation system for the whole car is broken. Ultra-modern train, climate-controlled,
so the windows are sealed. You check the cars bookending yours. A bit cooler with
free spaces in some compartments, but none of them vacant. And you have this one to
yourselves. Katie’s for sticking it out. Too much of a hassle moving the luggage.
Gwen’s fine – doesn’t seem to mind broiling when she can adventure with Malika,
write in her diary, or, if she’s moved to, fold the armrests up into the seat back, stretch
out across three cushions and nap. Half an hour of marinating in your own sweat and
you and Katie head for the dining car.
Where the heat’s no longer infernal, but it’s not chilly either. The early afternoon
sun, intensely bright, has got an edge on the AC, so you both order bottles of
Ottakringer beer, the brand the rest of the car is drinking. Between its potency and the
incrementally rising temperature, you soon work up a fair buzz. And suddenly become
aware, all around you, of the sound of German.
In Italy, you could grasp whole bits of meaning in what you heard. Sometimes,
if the sentence was simple, or close enough to French, the significance itself came
through. But here, apart from the rare recognizable word – schlecht, or fahrt, or ruach –
all language has become a wash of Ottakringer-inflected babble. The train stops at
Bishofshoven and after that, the Alps get serious. Gwen sidles up to your table to claim
a kiss, and ask you what the subtitle of her Malika book means: Groove ton chemin. It’s
Franglais you tell her: groove your way, your path. We’re riding on iron rails, you
explain, un chemin de fer. Does she want anything to drink? No, she’s fine. Back she
goes to puzzle out the rest of Malika on her own.
Groove grove-groove grove-groove sing the wheels. You’ve brought your
commonplace book in case you wanted to scribble anything down. But now you rifle
the pages looking for that bit of Tennyson you stumbled over months ago, him writing
circa 1850 about his poem, Locksley Hall. Did you jot it down in this book, or the one
before? Ah, there it is: “Grooves of change”: When I went by the first train from Liverpool to
Manchester (1830), I thought that the wheels ran in a groove. It was black night and there was
such a vast crowd round the train at the station that we could not see the wheels. Then I made
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 391
You look up, into Katie’s eyes. She’s half smiling, feeling no pain. Then your
eyes focus behind her. One table down the line, a large fellow of middle years with a
round, open face has begun talking to you – perhaps about the heat. Ich habe keine
clueless. The man nods, appears to take in what you’ve said, but continues to talk at
Which is when you realize that he may have boarded this train considerably
earlier than you did and therefore the bottle on his table may not represent the only
Ottakringer he’s consumed. This could explain why he does not seem particularly
concerned with the quality, much less the content of your responses. Suddenly he
pauses in his monologue and gives a comic shrug. You shrug back and he claps his
palms over his forehead, swipes them downward over his face and reveals an even
broader grin, a gesture that reminds you of one of the Little Rascals – Spanky was it? –
realizing he’s in trouble, but ain’t he cute? You nod and smile hello I must be going, and
take the opportunity of the shift in tempo to break eye contact and look at your watch,
unfold your map and spread it before you.
Let’s see… train’s going at a good clip. Should be getting close to Salzburg –
you trace along the route – approximately here… then what, from Katie’s point of view,
must be a classic double take as you register a little circle, a location point on the map
just west of where the tracks run – its placename printed in the same innocuous letters
as all the others. If your estimate is right, you’re about to pass within spitting distance
A black and white cascade of images spills onto your inner screen: Adolf in a
sober, doublebreasted suit. He ushers Göering around the grounds, gesturing to things
offscreen. On the terrace, Eva frolics in a cute two-piece against a stunning backdrop.
Cut back to the Führer as he chats with Göbbels. A hand in close-up points to figures
on a table-top terrain. Another hand reaches out to advance little infantry pieces and
tiny Panzer brigades. Pull back to Hitler again, medium shot, surrounded by generals
all in a jovial mood. Perhaps they’re congratulating him on a particularly Eagle’s-lair-
ish move – perhaps he’s just launched Barbarossa. You stare at your map, one edge
now damp from Ottakringer perspiration. Nothing before you coheres. You
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 392
in an animated cartoon. Perhaps Katie sees you shake your head.
When you step off the train at Salzburg, the platform dips and rises as if it were
the deck of a vaporetto, bucking across the lagoon toward Murano. A troupe of boy
scouts strides past doubletime, flag held aloft, singing their marching song. Katie goes
rigid at your side. Gwen trundles gamely along, pulling her little wheeled valise. You
don’t react at all. This is Austria. Young fellows with uniforms and badges are just part
of the mix.
Morning, and you sit in a comfortable chair in the common room of your hotel,
drinking coffee. Again, comes the sensation on the platform yesterday. The floor tilts,
slowly, not unpleasantly, then corrects to the other side. Look up in search of a horizon.
Light pours in from the window at your right. On the wall behind you, a full-sized lute
set in a gold frame. Straight ahead, through an open glass-paned door into the adjacent
dining room, two women sit at breakfast near an old-fashioned domed oven faced with
green-glazed tiles. Above them, hanging from a chain affixed to the wall, an odd-
looking candelabrum, too far off to make out clearly.
Notice what’s closer. Against the wall separating the two rooms, an upright
piano. Next to it, just beside the doorway, a rack of morning newspapers clipped to
batons. Across the whole upper third of the wall, scattered like wildflowers, a
collection of vividly colored straw hats.
Behind the bar, a maritime theme: sailing ship models, a dozen or more limpet
shells artistically arranged within a frame. To the right of the shells, sticking
perpendicularly out from the wall, and open-mouthed as if caught in mid-sentence, the
head of a fish whose body must once have measured the length of your arm. Get up to
take a closer look. At which point Peter, the hotel’s owner, enters, sees you studying
the fish head and answers before you can ask. Max, he says, came from a friend who’d
used the fish to make a bouillabaisse. Close up, the Max’s head is astoundingly ugly –
he looks strangely varnished. Is Max preserved? No, Peter answers, just mounted on a
board, exactly as you see him. For a while, he smelled bad. But not for several years.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 393
like a Max.
You ask Peter if he was born in Salzburg? Yes, he says, and he tells you that he
inherited the hotel from his grandfather, who built it at the close of the 19th Century.
And it’s been a hotel all along? Not exactly. In 1944, a bomb hit the building. From an
American plane, intended for the railway station a half mile away. We rebuilt it
completely after the war.
Peter excuses himself to attend to the business of the dining room and you return
to your coffee. Katie and Gwen will be down to breakfast any minute. In the
meantime, flip through your guidebook. No, you weren’t hallucinating on the train.
There it is, the first item listed under Country Excursions – not just Berchtesgaden, but
exit ‘Salzburg Süd’).
Here, in 1937, a “tea house” atop Kehlstein Mountain was given to Hitler by an
admirer as a fiftieth birthday present. To make the ascent to the Eagle’s Nest easier for
the “Führer” (his nomme de guerre appears in quotes) a 6.5 km road and tunnel access-
way was carved into the rock. Today, busses depart regularly from the Third Reich
Documentation Center at the foot of the road, and an elevator carries visitors up the
final 124 meters up to the Nest itself. “So you see, even this ‘memorial of
admonishment’ to megalomania and insane deeds can be reached conveniently. You
shouldn’t,” the entry concludes, “miss the panoramic view, as far as 200km away.”
When you look up, you see that Katie and Gwen are sitting in the dining room.
They motion for you to join them. The two women at the table by the oven have
vanished so now, as you make your way over, you can examine more closely the
ornament hanging above their table. It’s a wood-carved figure of fellow wearing an
apron like a blacksmith’s. He bears two keys in one hand. With the other, he holds a
candle aloft. From the hips down, where a man’s legs ought to be, two stag horns spiral
Perhaps it is the influence of Max, the shells and sailing ships, but somehow you
think, this creature ought to swim. You pour more coffee, compose a ham and cheese
sandwich on a warm roll. Choose a hardboiled egg and some stewed fruit. Yet more
coffee. A sumptuous repast. Frühstück!
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 394
• • •
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