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- December 20 – Le G. – Early Morning
Your room at the Quai Voltaire faces out over the Seine, and on the opposite side
stands the Louvre. The sound of cars rushing along the street is so loud, even after
midnight, that you close the windows. In near silence, tourist boats glide by, one after
another, their floodlights trained upon the facades of buildings along the riverbanks.
Before they penetrate your windows, the luminous broadsides strike the trees along the
quai, turning their leaves translucent yellow green. Then comes a wash of color that
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 426
distillation of it in some deep coffer of your memory. Suddenly exhausted. Almost
asleep. Tomorrow when you’re fresher, you’ll find a way to give sensation words. But
you know that game. You’d better write it now.
In preparation for leaving, you bought your RER tickets to the airport in
advance. Today when you reach the turnstiles, a workman, Afro-Français, is repairing
one of them. He sizes the three of you up, hauling your baggage, then with a barely
perceptible nod toward the open gate, motions you through. You’ll use the tickets
The B-line passes by a huge stadium, some astonishingly grim residential cités
and industrial suburbs, and delivers you to the spanking new departures terminal at
Charles de Gaulle airport. It’s designed like one of Boullée’s fantasies – an absurdly
long barrel vault with mind-boggling perspectives. Newly opened and still unfinished,
the place has the air of precocious ruin. Easy to imagine a section of the ceiling
collapsed, grass growing around the fissure where light pours in to illuminate a herd of
Hubert Robert’s wandering cows.
You amble about in search of a coffee and drinks for your girls, and seeing no
signs for services, find the snack bar by sheer persistence, located in a kind of basement
cum slit-trench, visible only down a narrow escalator. On the ride back up, bearing
beverages, the escalator’s rumble gates into a murmur that becomes a chant inside your
brainpan: Trust your path. This sounds so pat, so stupidly new age coming from
wherever it does that you turn at once turn it into a satiric acronym: TYP. Down the
vast cavern you walk, in the direction where you last saw Katie and Gwen, sitting with
the luggage. Sure, why not? TYP.
Takeoff, more or less on time. The instant the plane levels off, the guy in front of
you tilts his chair as far back as it will go. You try to open up your laptop, but the space
is too tight, and you can only unfold it half way. But you refuse to be defeated. You
angle the computer so the hinge rests on your thighs, as though it was a large, half-
opened cockle shell, and reach your hands inside to type, peering obliquely at the
screen. You turn to Katie. The noise of the engines has masked her weeping. You
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 427
Gwen’s turn, her face buried in the pillow. You reach across Katie’s seat to stroke her
hair. Close the computer and twist forward to reach the handkerchief in your back
What are you going to do now, back home? Turbulence over La Manche. Gwen
and Katie watch a movie on the little display screens built into the seat backs: a French
18th century costume farce. Afterward comes another movie: Queen Latifa and Steve
Martin enacting a tired Hollywood comedy of the races.
Switch off your display. A parade of town names parades across your eyelids:
La Bachelerie, La Mule Blanche, Fossemagne (Big Hole). And the sidestreets in
Montignac: Chemin d’Araignée (Spider Way) and Impasse au bout de monde (Dead
End of the End of the World). In Paris, near Quai Voltaire, the Impasse de deux anges
(two angles) and Rue du chat qui pêche (cat that fishes) off the Quai St-Michel. Sudden
memory on the tongue of a pastis you drank at a brasserie called Au père tranquille.
The chilled-out dad. That must refer to you. The flight attendant is coming round with
apéritifs. Atlantic below. Three layers of clouds. Groove through. Brother, you’re
To Jones Beach seeking saltwater cures for the back-in-New-York blues.
Afternoon wanes. You walk along the shore, out toward Robert Moses, then turn to
face the sea, letting the water lap over your ankles and calves. A few yards to your left,
a young woman, dark-haired, wades out. A wave slaps her thighs, she pauses, then
forges on. When she’s in waist high, she raises her left arm, and you see the white
plaster cast from hand to elbow. A breaker hits her chest, knocks her back a step, but
she keeps going, rests her arm on top of her head. She’s found her spot and stands
there as wave after wave pummel her. The cast must be getting heavy, for she reaches
up with her right arm to support it. Now she jumps up to clear a breaker.
There is something wonderful about this woman. You could watch her until the
sun goes down. Doing exactly what she wants. Unto herself. Gone in as deep as she
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 428
“They told us when we first got deployed it would be six months – the whole
thing. I thought I could handle that. I wasn’t aware of my wife’s situation [pregnancy]
and I thought I could suck it up and drive on, as the soldiers say.” So Jory Preston,
Specialist, 870th National Guard, told The New York Times.
Hurricane Isabel gives us a miss. Beats the stuffing out of North Carolina and
Virginia instead. D.C. shuts down for fear of the wind god. But all NYC gets is a flick
of her tail. After a night of rain and gusts, bright sun, warm and windy. And the
clouds. Follow one across an expanse of sky and you find yourself tracking with your
whole head. And even then its form has transmuted. And why not. This matter
hurtling overhead is neither earth nor concrete. What passes is the play of air.
Anna and Stephan’s wedding party on a chartered yacht, the Diplomat,
circumnavigating Manhattan island. Black tie – a first time for everything. Turn turn
Hang out at the forward end of the cabin with Katie, BJ and Ko, who try to spot
landmarks in the twilight, through the rainspattered windows. Neon haze off the
superstores of Fort Lee. Under the George-a-da-wash you go.
The Diplomat’s an elegant boat, late twenties or early thirties probably – clean
lines, warm woodwork. Must’ve been a swank place to gamble back in the day.
Against the bulkhead, a display case filled with models, one of them a battleship. This,
according the little plaque beneath it, is “exactly what the Arizona looked like at 8 a.m.
on December 7, 1941, just minutes before the attack on Pearl Harbor.” Aha, there’s a
mind-blowing concept for you. When a ship’s about to sink, she shrinks!
Attempt to keep a portion of your French by reading Micromegas, wherein
Voltaire recommends “il faut bien citer ce qu’on ne comprend point du tout dans la
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 429
the language one understands the least.
Up and went to Gagosian to see the Richard Serra sculptures. Serra had to go to
Austria to find a plant that could fabricate the steel to his specifications. In one section
of the vast gallery, a flotilla of sharp-ended, wavy, ship-like forms. But the huge maze,
Blind Spot is the one that takes the cake – what’s illusory and impenetrable wrap round
eachother inseparably. Not much to say. One simply has to navigate inward,
following the course of the too-high stained, spattered, workboot scuffed walls, curving
up and around, abruptly shifting direction when one faces no choice, until one reaches
the implacable, unremitting center. Not immediately, only when you leave the gallery
and walk east, no longer in the grip of the thing, it comes to you: Blind Spot is the only
expression of form that would make sense where the WTC used to stand. The Bathtub
must remain as it is. Build nothing above ground, honor the form of the foundation
and the barrier against the tides. Blind Spot would go somewhere on that great concrete
sub-surface platform. Then you could look down on its strange, crimped spiral shape
from above. Or venture below, into that great cellar of the world, wend your way
round all these impenetrable walls within walls. See what’s happening from within.
The wind blowing up Eighth Avenue, heavy, cool and salty, writes a maritime
end to Indian Summer.
But it’s not so foggy that you can’t check out the latest augmentations to the top
of the Empire State Building. Ah, the things that go on up there in the dead of night!
Hours after the great colored floodlights that illuminate the summit have been
turned off, with the observation deck closed and its hordes of sight-seers sent safely
back to terra firma, the welders and their torches take over. Gradually, over the past
couple of years, a fantastic array of telecommunications gear has been attached to the
main antenna and the superstructure just below it. And where else would it go, given
that the Empire State has become, once again, the tallest point around? The result is
that, by day, the spire has come to resemble an electronic cactus.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 430
It was Eric B. who alerted you to the lightshow and he was right, it’s well worth
staying up for. Sparks cascade out and down in chemical arcs of near blinding
intensity. One can only imagine that something’s gone terribly wrong – a short circuit
or worse. But soon the spectacle takes on a kind of pyrotechnic beauty. Empyre State
you think. Occasionally, an incandescent burst shows off the whole shebang: brackets,
braces, dishes, guywires, weird pods the shape of bass drums, an antenna crown of
Gazing at it now, you can’t help but think that with every bit of techno-crap they
stick up there the spire looks goofier, more out-of-control – a mockery of the clearly
articulated lines of the structure below. Christ, what are they thinking? Comes a point
where you might as well hang up a neon sign: Shoot Here.
• • •
Outside the café, a battered sanitation sweeping truck rumbles and hisses by on
its quotidian pass – displacing the dust and refuse that gravitate into the gutters along
the avenue. For some reason the name JOHNSTON has been stenciled below the
windshield in large black letters. Who is JOHNSTON? The vehicle? The woman of
medium build and early middle years who sits stolidly in the cab? Not likely her name
since you’ve several other folks operating this same sweeper.
Steady at the wheel, she negotiates the right onto 21st Street and weaves deftly
round an illegally parked car. Glimpsed in profile, the woman’s face seems rather
carved by the elements than born of mortal clay. Could she be the reincarnation, in
female form, of the Great Stone Face, lately crumbled in New Hampshire? Yes, and
with big gold hoop earrings this time around!
Now can a traffic cop be far behind? Ah, there he is in his little three-wheeled
clown cart, bearing tickets for the malingerers. If you had a kazoo, you’d run out on the
street and play a fanfare now.
They took off their high heels as they left their offices in the trade center. Scores
of women, hundreds of them. Took off their shoes and left them behind. Abandoned
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 431
repeated: No cause for alarm. And beneath the field of fireworks? Does the city that has
marched too long in its impossible shoes reclaim at last the ground for what can only be
a barefoot dance? Something of moonlight. And over east, something of the morning
She goes to school by herself now. Your one and only daughter. Slings on her
too-heavy backpack. Sometimes you calculate how long it takes the elevator to reach
ground, then stand and watch her from your windows facing south. Which corner will
she cross at? Twenty-fifth, Twenty-fourth? It all depends on which way the lights are
with her. But sooner or later she’ll negotiate Eighth Avenue and before her lies broad
expanse of Twenty-third Street. Fifty feet or so in from the southeast corner, she’ll wait
beneath the scaffolding with the other kids and workers for the crosstown bus. You
want to run downstairs and reel the years back, carry her on your forearm again. But if
you did, even if it were possible, how could she claim the city for herself? How could
she take it all in?
Once a year, you can see the sun set from your apartment. On that day, the sun
drops not behind, but in the gap between two close-set buildings. You never remember
the precise date. But you can sense it in the angle of the sunrise. You couldn’t swear to
it, but you’re pretty sure today’s the day.
Bea’s birthday. She’d be 94. And proud of Gwen’s artwork, her poetry, and
strong, elegant touch on the piano.
Who knows why, but on your way toward Le G., you flash back to once upon a
time – got to be at least four years ago – when you went by the café, more or less in the
same graying, soon-to-fade light to clear your head and have a coffee before going back
to work on Divided…. As you approached down the street, you saw a man standing
outside staring through the windows in a manner you imagined wistful.
“How long has this place been here?” he asked. You told him and he nodded.
He used to live in the neighborhood, remembered the mom and pop store that came
before. Where does he live now? “I’m homeless,” he said, “I live everywhere.”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 432
Standing there, you fell into a conversation and before long he reached into his
pocket, took out a small piece of black paper and a tiny scissors and began cutting,
pausing every now and then to look up at you. It took a while for you to realize he was
forming a miniature portrait, in silhouette. “Contact paper,” he responded to your
unasked question. When he finished, he asked if you had a piece of paper. You pulled
one of the manuscript pages from Divided… out of your bag. Carefully he peeled the
backing off and adhered your image to the blank side of the page, pressing with his
thumb against his palm. Handed it to you. Extraordinary. A fair likeness, and so finely
“I’d love to give you something for this,” you said, “but I’ve hardly anything on
He cocked his head to one side and looked at you squarely, almost accusingly.
“What’s the matter? Can’t you accept a blessing?”
In truth not really. Not in the moment. Just stood there calculating what was in
“I can stand you to a cup of coffee.”
“Sure,” he said. And thus continued the conversation inside, until in an hour or
so you went your separate ways.
“You’ll talk to anybody,” Jack used to say to Bea, half disparaging, half admiring.
And he was right. But then the fact was, he’d talk to anyone too.
Fog but not too cold. Open the window, put on a Cheb Mami CD. Hop on the
Nordic Trak. Close your eyes and cross country ski in your living room. Open your
eyes when you’re close to the end of your workout. What’s that? A big chunk missing
from a stepped roof down at the WFC. Look harder – nothing amiss – only steam rising
off a lower building, the foreground gray blending with the sky beyond. Everywhere
across the Lower Manhattan skyline, tops of buildings with bites taken out, restored in
the next windshift, then demolished again.
Most days, you relish the view of facing south, the play of clouds over the
buildings, particularly when they’re scudding east. It’s then that a horrible apparition
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 433
distance. And then you see them crumbling and the nausea comes.
Dinner at Teddy and Ladan’s – always a convivial and fascinating affair.
Philippa, an Episcopal priest of a lively air explains the difference between Catholic
transubstantiation and Protestant consubstantiation. For the latter, during the timespan
of the communion, the host and wine coexist with the actual body and blood, as in
Luther’s example of the temporary unity between an iron and the fire that turns it red-
hot. What happens to the leftovers then, after the Eucharist is over? Do they return to
being so much wine and wafer? Well, in a sense yes, says Philippa. Yet the interesting
thing is this: the wine is not just poured down the sink, nor the wafer chucked out with
the everyday garbage. Instead they are stored discretely, and disposed of in a special
A man you’ve never seen sits at Table 4. Usually you are that man in the corner
spot by the windows, but today another fellow’s beaten you to the draw. He’s got a
roundish open face – head shaved a week or so back, growing out stubble – square
black-framed glasses, a wedding band, and what used to be called a downtown air. He
chuckles his way through the New York Post, and then as he reads the A section of the
Times he breaks into several protracted bouts of laughter.
Yesterday, over coffee, Eric B. said he might move back to Liverpool. It makes a
certain sense. He has a back to move to, complete with a grown daughter and
grandchild, possibly a flat in the family’s house. It would be an adjustment for Rebecca
and Veronica, but Becky’s young enough to see it mostly as adventure, and Veronica
would be Veronica anywhere.
In early February, Bronwyn’s off to Turkey – got a gig teaching English at a
university in Istanbul. All the Jacks and Jills seem to be hitting the road. Where would
you move to? Will you live out your life here – entailed to you birthplace – unable to
wrest yourself from the spot where multitudes flock for a taste of freedom? Your father
expatriated to Vermont when he was ten years younger than you are now. But he’d
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 434
New York City was – however ephemerally – El Dorado. Destination, not origin. Like
her father, Gwen was born here. Where does her path lead?
The other day you came upon a line in Bloch’s Principle of Hope. “If the world
caves in, I will stand amidst the falling rubble.” The wonder is not how the words got
on the page, but how they got inside you, long before you read them. It might not help,
but still you wish you knew. In what year, on what day, in what precise hour, did you
become that “I”?
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 435
BUSH OF GHOSTS
January 17, 2004 – February 11, 2005
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 436
Something infinite behind everything appeared, which talked with my expectation
and moved my desire.
Centuries of Meditations
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 437
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