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- February 11 – Early Evening
- February 15 EEric Darton NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 439
- February 17 – Le G. – Early Morning
- March 4
- March 18 – Late Morning
- March 27 – Fifth Avenue 53rd Street Subway Stop – Morning
- March 30 – Kid’s Gap, Washington Street Sixth Avenue – Early afternoon
January 17 – Early Morning
Cold snap, dry as a bone. Looking south over the rooftops, scores of evaporation
sprites leaping off their chimneys.
• • •
This morning, the café is an ice forest. On the windows you face, toward the
north and east, a coating of condensation froze overnight into a pattern of exquisite
leafy shapes, like ferns from a past geological era. The cold outside must have drawn
the heat toward it and the glass intervened. Now you gaze at the crystallized evidence
of an unrequited exchange of atmospheres.
A part of you wishes this scrim could be permanent, but even now the sun
begins to crest over the roofs of the houses across Ninth Avenue, so it is only a mater of
time before droplets form and gravity pulls them into downward-running streams. For
the moment though, the ice leaves hang suspended as if the glass itself was host to
invisible stalks. And now, come to notice it, the leaf shapes seem to grow outward from
spines that look something like rock candy formed along sinuous strings running top to
bottom on the panes. It dawns on you that this event and your beholding of it
constitute some sort of rare gift. Only the windows near your table have been so
endowed. Sit and watch. Betsy brings your coffee. As she turns back to the counter
she pauses, stands leaning against the back of the opposite chair. Betsy’s new to Le G. –
hails from Arkansas. Together you stare at the ice relief, collude in suspending the
moment. Don’t hardly want to breathe.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 438
stalks remain. And then it strikes you that you’ve imagined this frozen world into the
past, when it may actually be a creature of an era to come. But certainly, it is
Almost gone. Where the sun strikes most directly, the ice has liquefied, run
down, left glass nearly as clear as if it weren’t wet at all. In the ever-narrowing hold-out
zone, a strange pattern of curving lines, like stems stripped of their leaves, persisting.
The forest has turned to fun house. And through its wavy field move the distorted
shapes of every passerby. You too, on your way out of here, any minute now.
Extraordinary coincidences. Yesterday, the day of the Democratic primary in
New Hampshire, the most powerful worm yet was launched onto the internet.
Gathering for Falencki at Judson Memorial. Shades of Nancy T., but two more
different deaths one couldn’t imagine. Last December, so the story goes, Falencki was
on vacation with his family in the Caribbean, swimming. His wife saw him floating on
his back looking blissed-out, and went her own aquatic way. Ten minutes later, she
saw him still in the same position and grew alarmed. Massive internal event.
After the circular sharing of words, you hug Jerry and Helena and Falencki’s
wife Maureen whom you’ve never until now. Inscribe your name in the book set up for
that purpose. On the same table as the book, a card stood up vertically. It reads:
– Lao Tse
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 439
Mark and Bruce to dinner. They toast your completion of Orogene with Veuve
Clicquot. Passing via bubbles across a real threshold. You’ve never done this with a
book before, nor had to – a rewrite so deep you learned its secret name.
Avid Times and Post readers with their noses buried in the papers, like dogs
trying to figure out who pissed there.
Up betimes and by subway to the Alliance Française to try to jam some lingo into
your ever-fewer available slots. Ascending the grand escalator at Fifth Avenue, a voice
reverberates off the tiles, familiar after lo these many years. It’s the station’s tutelary
deity, a man as rhetorically gifted as he is stark mad, holding forth on the landing
“Real men don’t pay child support!” This in his authoritative, preacher’s
cadence. “Oh you, you’re a real man,” his tone subtly sliding toward mockery.
Dramatic pause. “Baby maker!” Outrage – then a lightning switch of personas into
high and wheedling. “I ain’t never seen you or the kid before…”
• • •
Two hours later and you’re headed home the way you came, your head filled
with conditional verbs that seem to exhale out as vapor every time you breathe. This
time he’s leaning against the wall, halfway down the stairs just below street level,
bringing another rant to its crescendo while his eyes search out another pair to batten
on. C’est un vif-argent – a real live wire. In an instant, you’re below him, round the
bend and out of view. You’ve missed the ramp-up but still you hear its culmination,
delivered in the steely key of a high inquisitor: “Now – tell me all you know about…
blood – sucking – lesbians!”
He owns this station, every inch of it: platforms, escalators, mezzanine,
staircases, touts compris!
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 440
Orogene to Gloria in its bright orange box, specially purchased for the
occasion, zinging with optimism. Pure formality this. She’ll have no more idea what to
do with this novel than if you presented her with an ostrich. In these times and
circumstances, who would?
Pedro Pietri died today. At sixty.
do not dream
if you want your dreams to come true
if you want
to feel very rich
look at your hands
that is where
the definition of magic is located
• • •
Katie’s latest painting, a reclining nude, done last night in a matter of three hours
now hangs on the wall facing south, over your bed. The modeling of woman’s thighs,
breasts, upper arms, and most of all her stomach speak a direct, almost aggressive
language of volumes. Yet her eyes stare at and past you, a gaze so internal that yours
must compensate by reaching out to her. Sketched in behind the figure, a low chest of
drawers with a cluster of small objects atop it, and further back still, a wash of blue.
You hung the painting where it seemed to want to go, between your two
bedroom windows – one about four feet to its right, the other to the left on the
perpendicular wall. In this afternoon’s light, when you face the picture straight on,
you’ve a powerful sensation of looking not at a surface, but through another portal.
The woman appears to float over the street outside, while the bureau and the objects on
it turn to elements on a distant skyline. You can come forward, touch the canvass and
feel its give and weave. Shift it to one side and press your palm against the solid wall.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 441
But step back to where the windows come into your peripheral field, and the edges of
the painting turn to mullions. Your mind will not give actuality the ghost of a chance.
In the subway, a poster for the “Airtrain,” joint project of the MTA and the Port
Authority linking subways and busses with a monorail to JFK and Newark airports.
The logo superimposes a jetliner’s wingspan and fuselage over a section of cross-tied
railroad track. Clunky, uninspired, but effective enough. But oh how this image would
stick in Austin Tobin’s craw were he alive today. Emperor of the Port Authority, Tobin
built bridges and tunnels for a great automotive future that held no brief with any sort
of choo-choo. But now the roads no longer travel well. The arteries are too jammed up.
And so, however modestly, we’re back on track.
Gloria on the phone, her voice fatalistic. Well, you’ve perfected the novel, but there’s
nothing I can do with it. You feel the pull of continents separating, each to your own
worlds again, the sinking of the land bridge across the isthmus. You know what kind of
market this is, she says. Especially for fiction. And indeed you do. You wish one another
well and ring off. That’s it. You’re a free agent. Agent-free.
For a moment you feel guilty for having presented her with, and trying to foist
off onto the world, another confounding book. But the problem isn’t really the book. If
marketed with any intelligence it would find more than enough readers to justify its
publication. It’s the nature of the industry, like so many others, propelled on one hand
by greed, and fear on the other – the malaise trickling down from boardrooms to editors
who’d rather be hung for a lamb than a sheep.
And now comes something you never thought you’d do. Put it on the shelf. Get
back to these notes. One day, who knows, perhaps the veil of stupidity will lift long
enough for Orogene to march out into the light of print. Or the absurdity of everyday
life will make it read like reportage. Until then, it’s living in an orange box, where it can
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 442
to see him in a month of Sundays. Not running like I used to – a line he’s used for a good
ten years now. Then he waxes choleric about Bush and his cabal. Just wants to live
long enough to see the bastards thrown out of office – his voice full of vigor. Jesus, just
listening to the news for ten minutes makes you ill, yet somehow this carnival of
horrors seems to invigorate him. Well bless his heart – whatever keeps him going. And
then he’s onto a story about being a kid in Brooklyn, and seeing the first police cars – a
brand new fleet of Chevys – their doors all painted with a big initial PD. Naturally he
assumed that stood for Paddy Diamond, the local Democratic boss, because, hey, who
owned the cops? Some things are just common sense. Looked at straight on.
Next month when the Queen Mary 2 arrives after its first cross-Atlantic run, the
captain on the bridge will stand at eye level with the Statue of Liberty. Once upon a
time in the fifties, you watched as the original Cunard sister ships – Elizabeth with two
funnels, Mary with three – steamed past one another in the harbor attended by the
celebratory spraying of a retinue of fire boats.
A few years later came the Verrazano Narrows bridge across the Narrows. At
the time the span seemed to stretch nearly across the horizon and soar unimaginably
high. But your notion of scale has changed since then, and so has the built world – to
the point where, at high tide the new Mary’s funnel will clear the undergirding of the
bridge by only thirteen feet. Ah, Bartleby. Ah, engineering. It’s all in the tolerances.
Damn, you never made it out to Scalamandré, kept vowing to book a tour some
day and now it’s too late, they’ve closed up shop. Moved from Long Island City to a
new plant in South Carolina. Gone by the wayside, fifty highly-skilled weavers, two
dozen other workers and twenty Jacquard looms – the most astonishing machines. You
fell in love with these looms, the idea of them anyway, when you were teaching Media,
Technology and Cultural Change at Hunter College back in the now-dim nineties.
Rooting through the antecedents of the digiterati, you encountered Jacques Vaucanson,
divine madman of the Age of Reason, who invented not only an automaton duck and
flute player, but also, around 1745, a loom that used a system of hand-punched cards to
control warp patterns and potentially repeat them ad infinitum.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 443
Marie Jacquard, a Lyon silk manufacturer, improved Vaucanson’s prototype and
adapted it for widespread use. A portrait of Jacquard woven in silk, and created via a
daisychain of ten thousand punch cards now hangs in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
By 1812, thousands of Jacquard’s looms were operating in French textile centers,
producing extraordinary volumes of fabric and foreshadowing the age of industrial
Fast forward to 1923 when Franco Scalamandré, fleeing Fascism in Italy arrived
on the shore of the New World and settled in Paterson, NJ, then the heart of the
American silk industry. There, according to family legend, by virtue of a happy
accident, he spotted a truckload of looms headed for the dump and offered the driver
$10 for the lot. The deal being struck, out of the cab jumped the truck’s passenger, a
master weaver. Kismet. In 1929, Scalamandré moved a major part of his operation to a
red brick factory in Long Island City. Since then, three generations of weavers have
produced fabrics, tassels and trimmings to decorate the likes of Hearst’s San Simeon,
the Metropolitan Opera, the Oval Office and Red Room, and scores of garden-variety
mansions from Newport to Vizcaya. Today’s buyers pony up $300 plus per yard for a
sumptuous damask. But the move south, and the shift to computerized production was
prompted, so the company says, by price pressures from abroad. Same old mantra,
heard rumbling round the Western world.
Though Scalamandré’s looms were built by a Massachusetts company circa 1900,
except for the changes in motive power – first water and animals, then steam and
electricity – their method of weaving is essentially the same as the original Jacquards.
Six have been donated to the future Smithsonian National Museum of Industrial
History to be located, appropriately, in Bethlehem, PA. All the other looms will be
scrapped, save one, for display in the new Scalamandré factory’s lobby. That’ll learn
you for not getting your ass on the subway when you had the chance. Be worth
researching if there are any working Jacquards left in France.
Fragment of a dream. Somewhere uptown on a posh cross street, you carried on
a delightful communication via hand gestures and silent vocalizing with a young man,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 444
a clerk, through the oval window of A La Vielle Russie. He on the inside, you on the
street, though in dream-memory you might have been inside the shop earlier.
You turned to go, then thought of a last question and walked back again. Are you
a branch of the same shop down the street? you signed to him. Yes, he nodded vigorously,
and in the dream you imagined with great clarity the northeast corner of 58th Street &
Fifth Avenue, the site of the actual La Vielle Russie. You looked down and there, inset
in the sidewalk cement, manhole-sized in gleaming brass, the logo of the Sherry
Netherland hotel, its SN capital letters nestled in an arc of laurel. Go figure. Two places
on the same block that always seemed so far beyond your realm of access that they
scarcely registered in your conscious mind – no matter how many times you passed
outside. But the dream city, powerful creature that it is, accepts no restrictions on its
Against the wall at the top of the escalator, the brilliant madman you’ve heard
haranguing the station all these years lies on his side, fully clothed, hands pillowing his
head. Sleeping, you can’t but think, like a baby.
• • •
Post meridian: wherever you go in the city it feels as though you sit on a great
fat bull’s eye. Vast Saturday crowds at Canal and Broadway and again, later, along
Spring Street. Temperate weather.
At Enchanted Forest on Mercer Street you find a package of facsimile mid-19th
century French Thaumatropie discs. An illusion game. You pull strings and the little
discs spins, a brightly-colored chromolithographed scene on one side, a stark silhouette,
black against white on the other. When you’ve got them going fast enough, the two
images blend into one another – almost. Rather they hover in a kind of dynamic
suspension, their forced juxtaposition calling out their essential irreconcilability: a
kitchen maid working her churn flickers together with a flock of sheep on a hillside.
Another shows a long perspective of a boy and dog on a street leading out into the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 445
countryside while another boy watches from a balcony. The only one that feels
“possible” projects a puppet into a magic lantern show.
From a coffer on the counter, Gwen chooses twenty glass beads for a dollar.
Katie buys a strange and lovely handmade wire basket, with the head, legs and tail of a
horse. A miniature oriental carpet, no more than four inches by six, and woven in
Istanbul draws your eye and touch.
When you get home and bring the carpet into your room, it dawns on you that
you need another tchotchke like a hole in the head. But then you spot the pocket
compass you bought in Madrid, replica of a medieval one. On your desk by the lamp,
always showing you where north is. The proportions of the two rectangles are perfect.
Now the compass sits squarely, perfect on the medallion of its carpet. Will it fly?
Early this Sunday morning the most amazing sensation. Your dreams were
washing you ashore. One last wave and then you lay on solid ground. Awake.
• • •
Midday. Schlepping two bags of groceries home across 25th Street from Whole
Foods – Whole Paycheck as they call it in Texas – you hear the alarm. It’s a Corolla CE,
howling, uncomforted. As you pass, the ramping electronic blares modulate into an
insistent question: WhyWhyWhyWhyWhyWhy? Utterance without breath.
• • •
Oh to see a bit of tone around the edges of the white noise.
There’s a realization for you: you used to range over the whole of your city.
Every borough and all parts of Manhattan. Now you’re borderline agoraphobic. Partly
it’s the density of the crowds you encounter nearly everywhere, but it also has
something to do with the quality of the mass experience. If you stay away from home
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 446
too long, you get so tired you have to sleep, as though recuperating from a long
And the energy out there, its fluctuations, its wild swings from civility to on-the-
edge to over the top. Is it you that’s changed, congealing into middle-aged? Or is it a
response to external sensations, or both? Are your own states of mind and body a kind
of litmus test for the moods and sub-moods of the city? Have you deeply internalized
its emotional fluctuations after all these years like those of an immensely complex
parent? Or are you a canary in a mine? If the latter, how come you don’t have sense
enough to fly the coop?
You and Katie duck in to try and replace, on sale, Gwen’s lost, lamented hooded
sweatshirt. Amidst the hubbub of low-intensity commerce, a zaftig salesclerk, early
twenties, with gorgeous mocha skin, attempts to start a conversation with a blond,
square-faced little white kid, about six years old, whose baby brother reclines, passed
out, in the stroller pushed by their black care-giver.
“How ya doin’” asks the salesclerk.
Silence. He eyelocks her, sets his jaw.
“You alright?” Raising her eyebrows, still upbeat.
Niente, nada, garnicht. Just those bluegreen eyes staring up at, or is it past her?
An odd suspicion comes over you that perhaps this child knows he is not alright
– knows too in some deeper, more global way that things are not alright. You’d like to
be projecting. But there’s something cold, and old, in those eyes. You’d give a lot to
hear his mind speak.
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