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|April 22 – Early Morning
You watch out your bedroom window for the helicopter vanguard, then comes
the fireboat – a movable fountain up the Hudson. Four beats later, you see the tip of her
prow and in an instant she has filled the whole visible U of river between the Port
Authority Building and the Penn South highrise just to your south.
Her superstructure’s immense, not beautiful, and so tall it obscures the Holland
Tunnel ventilation tower and even the Jersey side high-rises of Newport behind her.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 457
Through your binoculars you can make out silhouettes of onlookers standing on the
roofs of lower buildings on this side of the river.
You called out to Gwen and Katie when you first spotted the arc of spray from
the approaching fireboat. But they’d already heard the horn blasts, two of them. Not
like the standard foggy moans, these came as deep tonal rumblings that shook the
window screens like drumsnares. Gwen perches on your bed for the high angle view,
and Katie stands to your right. The QM2 moves fast – in a long instant her aft has
vanished behind the building to the right, and then, like a bookend, another fireboat
and chopper complete the procession. Gwen will be a little late to school, but this isn’t
every day, is it?
• • •
A year ago exactly, the three of you were headed for Costa Rica. At Kennedy,
you picked up a copy of the Times and flipped directly to the last page of the A-section
to see they’d run Wolfgang’s op-ed piece. Bingo: “The Loneliest Victors,” and beneath
the title, his byline. Something startling about the expected happening just where and
when it is supposed to. A surge of excitement for his moment in the sun, and then an
undertow of jealousy. It will be a cold day in July that the Times prints a syllable of
yours. There ought to be a word for what you’ve done – “Timesacide” perhaps, though
that sounds awkward – by taking them to task so frontally, however small your voice.
Now and again, you even indulge the morbid speculation that when you die, they’ll
either run no obit at all, or do one of the dismissive hatchet-jobs with which they brush
those who won’t play into the cultural dustheap. But then, though the odds are against it,
you just might outlive the Times.
But as you stood there reading Wolfgang’s essay, felt his measured accumulation
of historical material, appreciated its nuances – all the more admirable for a person
writing in an adopted language – the toxic sense subsided, transformed into pride in
having him for a friend and you bathed, for a moment, in his brilliance.
The piece was pure Wolfgang in that he used a charged image to trigger his
dropping of a social plumbline – in this case a widely-reproduced photograph of
several high American military commanders seated at a rococo table in one of Saddam’s
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 458
captured palaces. Wolfgang traced the surrender table as a shifting signifier of power
relations, and the conditions of surrender as a harbinger of things to come. When
Talleyrand appeared before the Congress of Vienna in 1815, he did so as the
representative of a defeated nation, yet was treated as an equal. In 1918, no such
politesse obtained. At a table in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles the Germans signed a
treaty they regarded as a diktat rather than the terms of an honorable peace.
“Still,” Wolfgang wrote, “even in 1945, the presence of the vanquished at the
surrender ceremony was regarded as an essential part of victory. …Last week in
Baghdad, however the degradation of this tradition reached a new level. …There were
no vanquished…. The Americans were seen among themselves.”
The essay closed with the observation that the Baghdad victory was “consciously
or not, an ersatz surrender for the simple reason that the defeated regime vanished
without a trace.”
When you called him from the airport to offer congratulations, he told you that
the editors had cut his final paragraph, but that in the scheme of things, he didn’t think
it too important. Now you pull out the original manuscript he faxed you and the words
that hadn’t made it into print.
“History may still have one irony in store. It may well be that instead of the
evermore elusive idea of a cache of weapons of mass destruction – on behalf of which
the war was started – the real danger for America may turn out to be the army that
presumably vanished into nowhere, but possibly underground.”
Fallujah. Within the greater nightmare, a very particular nausea – one that puts
you off your coffee. If your spirit cycled through this world before, you must have
lived in a besieged city, or else, Lord help you, been one of the besiegers.
She’s closing in on twelve. Right around this age you had to start taking your
heart back from your father. You know that in the process of growing into her own
autonomous being, Gwen will need to withdraw from you too. Though maybe, if you
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 459
play your end of the letting go better, the separation won’t leave such disfiguring scars.
And the weave can be rebuilt at another level when she’s an adult. Enchallah.
As you thread through the crowd on Canal toward Lafayette, her vendor’s cry
sounds shrill and birdlike: DVD-DVD-DVD-DVD! Pause. Repeat. Suddenly a surge
of street traffic pushes you directly in front of her. Look into her eyes – no contact –
then down. Atop a corrugated carton, all her bootlegs in a row: 13 Going on 30, The
multiple iterations of the Matrix, Harry Potter, Kill Bill – name it, she got it.
Hang a left, walk north Kamwo on Grand. Pick up your Chinese herbs. Look up
along Mott Street – the Empire State stands absolutely unto itself. Diagonally across to
DiPalo’s – Katie wants to pick up mozzarella, homemade ricotta, pumpkin ravioli and,
if you’re lucky, a carton of imported blood orange juice.
Wend uptown to fetch Gwen from her theater class. All the way to 28th and
Broadway. Maybe it’s the on-and-off rain, the late afternoon gray light, the season’s
cool – for whatever reasons, the city has never looked or felt more magnificent.
Down the block along Eighth Avenue, the gorgeous camo bark of sycamores in
the rain. And cherry blossoms, holding up, downpour notwithstanding. Too in their
prime to fall.
• • •
Café newspapers full of Ryongchon, North Korea. Who knows what happened
there? Kaboom is all anyone can agree on. Diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate are the
latest culprits, the same cocktail they say caused Oklahoma City. First report: a
collision, dynamite. Two trains running as the blues song goes. Then no collision, but a
single trainload of what? set off by an electrical spark. Rumors of a tactical nuke.
Attempted assassination of Kim Jung Il. Pick a theory or chalk it up to shit happens.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 460
confidence in? Maybe never. When you were six, way before the remarkable events in
Dealy Plaza, you recall how confused the grown-ups got trying to explain what was
happening in Suez. Good night and good luck.
And more recently, do folks really believe that a homemade bomb did that kind
of damage to the Federal Building? Or that the attack was planned and carried out by a
pair of Desert Storm vets run amok? Shades of The Manchurian Candidate more like it,
but who are the programmers? So many traumas left open and raw – more damaging
by far than the hits themselves. Persistently denied a firm accounting, how
incrementally dominant becomes our blood-language of fear. In South Africa they have
a truth and reconciliation commission. Lord how we need one of our own.
• • •
From the roofdeck of Shana and Mark’s apartment house way west on 23rd, a
terrific view last night of the QM2’s downriver passage. Out she sailed, one great silly
barge, her name writ huge along the hull like a billboard lest she be mistaken for what –
a Staten Island ferry? And such a swarm of boats and choppers round as to look less
like a display of fealty than encirclement by scavengers.
Above the Statue of Liberty as she passed, smiley-face fireworks bursting in air –
straight on, sideways, upside down.
It’s never occurred to you precisely this way before, but for some reason, today it
clicks: the city feels like it’s at the end point of its manic phase – a state that’s really a
denial of mind, spun out beyond all reason and expectation. Or is this just a micro-
plateau before the next spinning out?
The little girl upstairs must live bathed in tears. Three generations and way too
much misery in that two bedroom apartment, the same layout as yours. The girl’s
father is rapper, white and weasily, ridiculously do-ragged. Abysmally unmusical – a
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 461
whiny voice, no sense of phrase nor rhythm. Fortunately the words don’t carry – you
hear only their bludgeoning repetition, and bass thuds that vibrate the ceiling to the
point where you imagine the cement confecting down the walls with every beat. One
day the concrete will give way altogether and this imbecile will end up falling through
the floor and into your living room.
You’ve nicknamed him The Teenager, though he has to be in his twenties, and
you see him now and again with the little girl. She’s maybe two years old and change,
curly-haired, looks brightly at the world around her. It’s clear she wants some give-
and-take with dad. But though he holds her hand, the gesture is perfunctory – like that
of a distracted older brother. Grudging even. No mom on the scene from what you can
Sometimes in the lobby or laundry room, or when the elevator for the odd-
numbered floors is out of service, you’ll run into an incredibly non-descript middle-
aged guy who’s likely the Teenager’s father. A woman roughly in her forties, who may
or may not be the Teenager’s mother, but is probably Grand Dad’s wife, lives up there
too. But when bedlam rages above, it’s the Teenager’s voice you hear querulous and
aggrieved, cursing out his father or upbraiding his daughter, amidst banging doors,
crashing objects and what can only be flung furniture. Only higher in the mix, and
more enduring, the uncomforted wailing of the child.
More than once you’ve called the cops and Penn South security. For all her
tortured sounds, you’ve seen no evidence that the girl is being physically hurt. But
even if she isn’t being hit, Lord what it must be like to have your father scream at you
like that, protractedly, and in such a hideously adenoidal timbre. Then too, you hear
her, several times a week and sometimes two or three days running, shrieking like a
banshee for an hour or more on end, without any apparent trigger. You try to imagine
– out of sheer psychic and aural self-protection – that her cries are those of a muezzin or
a street vendor, momentarily standing in relief, but ultimately all of a piece with the
surrounding din of the city.
Back in your early twenties you entertained the fantasy of kidnapping your half-
brother David, thirteen years your junior, and rescuing him from the jaws of Jack. At
times you wish you could snatch this girl out of her nightmare too, though by now
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 462
she’d be a handful to cope with. What you’d like to do to her father would land you up
Sounds of her crying in your hallway not fifteen minutes ago, just after you saw
Gwen off to school. The odd elevator must be down. Made a foray outside to check,
weigh in with the presence of a Senior Male, and there she stood, isolated, arms at her
sides, inconsolable. Nearby, the Teenager and Grand Dad, standing apart from her and
one another, impassive as a pair of golems. But the Teenager turned round at your
approach, and you fixed him with a look you hope conveyed something on the order of
“pick up your child, you idiot,” but then the elevator door opened and the three of them
filed on, the girl still crying.
• • •
At the café you flip through the Post, land on the “opinion” page. Ralph Peters’
column, “Getting Iraq Right.” Scan. Your eye sticks on a sentence and an old Kate
Bush lyric leaps from deep storage into subvocalization: Wow, wow, wow – unbelievable!
But what you utter is a low whistle. It takes a lot to pull you up short these day, but
Murdock’s boy has done it. “If any adult touches a damaged or destroyed U.S. military
vehicle, he must be shot.”
No time, really, to take this in when in rapid order, as if emerging pop, pop, pop!
your mates come in: Eric B., Jacques, Mark and Shana – whose pugs Bauer and Brusché
look in through the window from their perch on the bench outside – and Leslie W., who
only wanted to read her Ram Dass book in peace but soon gets vortexed into the
collective hubbub that passes for conversation. Clock hands fly fast. Beyond your
cluster of tables, the café clicks by in time-lapse motion, out of which Kimsey emerges,
efficient and unhurried, with another round of coffee. Today her teeshirt is a white one.
Will live in a castle read the discreet red letters across her chest. And when she turns her
back: Soon. And now it strikes you that this message is no mass market, wish-
fulfillment trope. Later this year, Kimsey is going back to southern Germany with her
American boyfriend to get married there. Raise children. It never occurred to you
before, but it’s not impossible that the “von” in front of her surname actually comes mit
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 463
At the memorial for Uncle Joe, you sit at a table next to Gioia. She’s wearing a
button with a slogan on her jacket. Type’s so small you have to lean in and raise your
glasses up to read it: The meek are getting ready.
Big scandal breaking about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops. What a
strange country – so deeply Puritan, so steeped in the culture of war as redemption. No
moral problem dropping radioactive shells on civilian populations, or, as in the last
war, burying enemy soldiers alive. But when our warriors take the hate and fear and
dominance game we trained them to an explicitly sexual level, then off we go a-
reprehending. Won’t face up to the inescapable logic of it all: if you’re already
violating someone’s country, why not fuck them up the ass as well?
disconcertion, folks unsure whether to take a drag on their cell phones or check their
cigarettes for messages. A whole society hydroplaning.
Globalization flattens the world. Of that there is no doubt. Yet even in mallest-
Manhattan, the city resists all uniformities of surface or experience. The wondrous
refraction of this place doesn’t require changing one neighborhood for another – every
step over a sidewalk crack can precipitate you into another world. Nearly any path –
say this one, made up of hexagonal paving blocks, that runs around the perimeter of
Central Park – leads through a fantastic multiplicity. In a space of only a few blocks, so
many ways of ways of being human.
Breakfast with Elizabeth at Café Sabarsky, a gorgeous simulacrum of a Viennese
interior down to the newspapers hanging from batons on a rack next to the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 464
Böesendorfer. Out the window, across Fifth Avenue, the south end of the reservoir.
Through the now-burgeoning leaves, glimpses of folks jogging.
Downtown again. Pop out of the subway like a rabbit, still stepping to the
Radetzky March. Sidewalk’s unusually crowded. A pair of young women dead ahead
and closing fast. In the gap between cropped jackets and low rise jeans, requisite
flashes of belly. No room to maneuver round them, so keep straight on. Big chrome-
lettered belt buckles, near enough to read. Passing on the right: ANGELA – to your
Weaving through the streets these days, the body language of a strange bipolar
mood. Some folks walking slumped and dispirited-looking turn giddy on
unexpectedly meeting an acquaintance. Parting ways, they press on bravely a few
paces, then sink back into depletion. Others stride about with a bright “Right, I’m on
it!” air that feels more like they’re applying for a job than negotiating an urban space of
Bea occasionally used a phrase to describe what it felt like to be suspended
between her mania and depression: schweben in der luft, floating on air. In your mind
this sounded like a pretty appealing state, but as she meant it, and perhaps in its
German connotation, this floating was not so much a carefree, feather-like sensation, as
a feeling of indeterminacy, a lack of proper mooring, unease.
As always this morning’s conversation with Elizabeth wandered through a maze
full of associative turns. And scraped up a lot of something from the bottom of the pot.
A strange parting note after you hugged goodbye at the corner of 86th and Lex. You’d
been talking about your children and the tenor of the times with its all-pervasive sense
of threat. Heavy of heart. “We’re going to get whacked again,” you said, or something
close to that. “You think so?” she asked. It sounded partly like a question, and partly
like “Ah, so you think so too.” Spooked.
You’ve never seen such density on the streets – on nearly every thoroughfare,
crowds surging like those in the panicked descriptions of the garment district’s masses
in early nineteen hundreds. It’s after seven p.m. on 23rd and Eighth by Kesban’s fruit
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 465
stand. Around and about it and up, down the subway stairs, rivers of people, rolling
• • •
On the radio, a “semi-staged” New York Philharmonic performance of
Bernstein’s Candide. You keep hoping for a liberatory laugh, but the listening just
makes you queasy: a litany of flippant rapes and massacres, the Lisbon earthquake, the
laughter of an audience imagining itself immune to such calamity. Presented this way
and at this time it doesn’t feel like satire, more like intellectual porn. Can a New York
audience afford this – smugness spiced with a pinch of warding-off? And if Voltaire
were alive today, he’d probably be in Guantánamo wearing an orange boiler suit. Or,
Lord help us, a dog-man in Abu Ghraib. And what would stand for Lisbon, Fallujah?
Or some flat city yet to come?
Jeeze, Jeremiah, lighten up. Still it plays in your head, a wayward line from a
psalm: Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
Conversation with Eric B. You agree this, right now, is World War I. The
shootup in 1914 over the Rhine, didn’t count.
• • •
Semper infotainment. Online on the Times front page, you can either click on the
latest movie trailer or view a horrorshow that culminates with Lynndie England and
her “dog.” Coming Soon to a Theater Near You: Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Abu Ghraib.
Keep scanning. Every day it seems the Gray Lady sinks another level deeper
into a kind of senile dadaism. A fellow described as “a financial analyst,” has taken to
showing up in Washington Square Park (on Sunday afternoons when the markets are
closed) and giving hugs to passersby “for free.” Just beneath his photo runs another
story’s headline: “Stocks Fall to New Lows for Year.”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 466
apposition, one could almost call it dialectic.
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