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- October 2 – Early Morning
- October 10 – Early Morning
- October 12 – West 4th Street Subway Station – Evening
- October 20 – Midmorning
- November 3 – Judson Church – Evening
- December 29 – Cooper-Hewitt Museum – Early Afternoon
- June 16 – 24th Street Eighth Avenue
- July 11 – Central Park at 81st Street – Afternoon
- August 27 – Wood’s Hole, MA
- September 2 – Le Gamin – Midmorning
- November 5 – Le G. – Early morning
- November 23 – Fifth Avenue 53rd Street Subway Station – Late Afternoon
Nancy’s plane has gone down off Newfoundland. Complete disintegration. No
chance anyone made it. You rush to lay hold of the binder, the draft of her book –
untitled, intact, just where you’d left it, on the living room buffet.
Mild breeze down the curving path from your doorway to the sidewalk, and
there they are, outlined against the postcard blue – towers innocent as overgrown
babies. So you ask them: Just what are you guys trying to say? And this time they come
through with an answer: Divided we stand.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 56
Parked on 22nd Street just west of Eighth, a bright white van. Painted on the
side in stark black lettering: STUDY KABBALAH – ALEPH REFRIGERATION & AIR
CONDITIONING. Beneath the type, a large, precisely rendered geometric shape that at
first glance you assume is a Freon molecule, but that turns out, on closer inspection, to
be a diagram of Abraham’s Ladder. The Material Universe forms its base; the next rung
is Foundation and, at the summit, Infinite Energy. To the left, reading upward:
Understanding, Restraint and Empathy. Ascending on the right: Dominance, Mercy,
Wisdom. Lines radiate out from Balance at the very center of the figure, connecting every
For a moment you’re dumbstruck by the improbability of the thing – its sheer
deadpan absurdism. Yet in an odd way it makes sense. From the little you know of
Kabbalistic lore, an image comes to you: the Sephirot – invisible, numberless, all-
pervasive emanations of the almighty that, taken together, constitute the energy of life
itself. You see them in their dance, perspiring mightily, glowing red with the intensity
of performing the eternal work set out for them by the divine being. Who better to keep
the cosmos from melting down than a team of ultra-Orthodox refrigeration specialists?
You wait for a train to take you home from teaching. A rat patrols the gutter
between the tracks searching for tidbits. Light down the rails brightens, intensifies,
then disappears. That’s the old trick the uptown F train plays. Runs parallel with the C
and E just south of the station, so it looks like it’s coming your way, but then diverges
down to the lower level and you are left looking down the dark, empty tunnel. A
miniature death of hope. Ah, light again, this must be your train – not likely there’d be
two F’s right on top of one another. Sure enough, it’s a C, shuddering down the tracks
with great noise and din. But the rat is not afraid. He has learned that no harm will
come to him if he doesn’t stand on the rails!
Due out just in time for the Millennium.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 57
When Norton accepted Free City, you and Katie hugged eachother, jumped up
and down and cried. This time, you celebrate too, but there’s a different quality to the
triumph. As though you beat back something that nearly dragged you under.
procrastinating. You show her where Philippe Petit walked his wire between the
towers with only a balance pole to guard against the fierce, unpredictable winds. And
the tag painted on the railing at the northeast corner: George Willig 5/26/77. That’s
the guy who used homemade climbing equipment to scale the side of Tower One, a
whole quarter mile to the top – whereupon the cops promptly arrested him. A crowd of
thousands stood in the plaza for hours, watching him inch his way up.
You’ve picked a fine day to come, visibility north to the foothills of the Catskills,
and gusts that blow Gwen’s hair about like streamers.
One flight down to the glassed-in observation deck. You sit in pneumatic tilting
bleachers while they show a movie of a helicopter ride over the city. Zoom above Park
Avenue. Whoa, you almost smashed into the PanAm building! Ah, the nightscape over
midtown. Stentorian voice-over: Manhattan – a place of poets and planners, dreamers and
Hundreds of people, must be half the arts community in New York turn out for
Nancy’s memorial. Everyone in the dance and movement world. A dozen perform
their tributes. Then Jon Gibson, her husband, and Philip Glass improvise on soprano
sax and piano. You have no idea how Jon manages – there must be something that
sustains him in the playing.
The mayor’s name is printed on the program, but he proves a no-show. A
deputy recites Hizzoner’s statement about the city’s tragic loss. Jon has asked you to
read an excerpt from her manuscript. Your voice comes out disembodied. The
audience inclines toward her words. Nancy tapped into some kind of truth and you
have become its pipeline of the moment. Your grief hits only when you resume your
seat and the show goes on.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 58
No more believable now than when you first heard the news. Same with
Gregory Kolovakos’s death, seven years ago. There’s a translation prize named after
him now – how posthumous can you get? Yet the psychic message still doesn’t come
home. The sense of their living selves is incommensurable with the finality of dead.
You struggle to think of Nancy in anything but the present tense. Write a letter. Her
name plate is still on the door buzzer down on Harrison Street, but if you sent it there,
she wouldn’t get it.
…I want you to know that I am still writing, but that I don’t write the same way any
more. A bigger part of me is writing as if this was my last moment – which brings me to the last
time I saw you: coming toward our café in the late summer miasma of a Tuesday afternoon,
walking imperturbable, crossing the street toward me, your head rotating like a radar spotting
whacked-out cabs, your dress blowing in the wind and one hand holding your hat on the head
that kept calmly turning to take in everything from what seemed a middle distance. Moving like
Marilyn, all psoas action.
That was the day I gave you Free City – it’s a good travel book, small, lightweight and
just the right length for a plane flight to Europe. And you thanked me for it in that hurrying-to-
go email and then you thanked me for everything. We’d thanked one another plenty of times
before, but never for everything. We were never that conclusive – we had a process going,
didn’t we? And so I thought, feeling a bit paranoid, what does she mean? We still have this
book to finish. Is she firing me? But maybe you sensed something I didn’t. It was, after all,
only a plane flight to Geneva.
You’d felt safe in the concept of Switzerland.
You wander through an exhibition, The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing
Disney Theme Parks. Pause to watch a promotional reel for the opening of the original
Disneyland – from back in the day when Anaheim, California, still resonated with the
aura of the Wild West. Here comes the choo-choo train, straight toward the camera.
The narrator’s voice crows out: If you look down the track, you’ll see Mickey Mouse at the
Aha, now it all makes sense.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 59
To your left at Table 5, two dotcom prodigies talking loud and big. “Yeah,” says
the louder, “I could get any number of robots to come in, sit down and write code for
you think about it, the luckier the book got in having John as its editor. More like an
ideal reader who gave notes that made you look at the text differently, detach enough to
let the material speak its own mind. Very precise and attuned in his questions. Light
touch, but didn’t miss a trick.
He called once, early in the year, excited by the idea that he would edit it not in
his office, but rather in the New York Public Library reading room. You imagined him
working at one of the long wooden tables flanked by researchers of every stripe,
lunatics, horseplayers and snoring people come in from the cold. There he sat, poring
over your pages, an obsessively sharpened #2 pencil in hand and battery of others lined
up at the ready. Above and around, the great windowlit space, embodying an all-but-
vanished sense of public. Wonderful the idea that he’d let the qualities of this place
inform his edit.
A week ago Monday, a fellow opened up a fruit and vegetable stand a block
north of Bassry’s. And surprise – Abu works for the competition! Truly not a prime
location, but bound to siphon off some business. Bassry looked so angry and disgusted
you said nothing at all. But since Friday last, no sign of the new cart. Four days on the
corner before it vanished into the city, and took Abu with it.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 60
Pilgrimage up the Hudson to a luncheon celebration at the Bear Mountain
Lodge. Most all your surviving Darton aunts and uncles will be there along with your
cousins and Gwen’s. Aunt Maisie, now the eldest of the clan, turns ninety today. You
bought her present at Something Else, the eclectic treasure-trove of a giftshop across the
street from Le Gamin. It’s a little painted glass bell with a musical peal. A beautiful
object in its own right, it seems an emblem too of Maisie’s clear, sharp mind.
From a bench at the perimeter of the playground, you watch Gwen negotiate a
wooden balance beam. Such a grace and lightness to her footsteps. Three more days
and she’ll be seven. A rustling in the bushes behind you. Squirrels? No, the squirrels
are in the tree. It’s a couple of plump rats cavorting.
Curbside fireworks outside the French Roast café. Acetylene torch throws sparks
against the window. All over town they are amputating fireplugs six inches below the
surface, then cementing them over. Decommissioning red cast iron corner call boxes
too. What means this? Got to be a good sign. Someone high up must have read New
York’s palm and seen fewer fires in our future.
Bless BJ for lending you her house. Each day, Katie paints another watercolor –
land and seascapes, each more lovely than the next. Gwen has grown bolder, though
she remains a wary swimmer. The water still warm, and calm at the cove beach.
Press proofs of Divided We Stand greet you on the doorstep when you return from
a swim. They’ve set the chapter subheads small, and in a typeface so compressed and
stylized they are nearly illegible. You make known your displeasure to no avail. The
beans have been counted and there are no more left to spare. Apart from that, the book
looks good. And in truth, who ever imagined these dark horse pages would see the
light of type at all?
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 61
Afternoon at the aquarium, Gwen sprints ahead to pet the starfish. You stare at
the Portuguese Man-of-War arrested in time in its formaldehyde jar. “A community
with one body…hundreds of individual animals joined together for cooperative living”
reads the label.
Its constituent members divide into specialized groups. Some gather as sail-like
floats, others tentacles, still others become stingers or reproductive organs.
Which puts you in mind of what someone told you once about aspen trees: that
their root structures interconnect making a stand of them, in effect, a single organism.
Each tree communicates its status to the whole. If one becomes sickened by a disease,
its neighbors pick up the chemical signals it sends. Such an organism might evolve
from a single tree. Over time and generations, the grove possesses the capacity to
Sam Waterson, who acts the moral center of Law & Order enters the café.
Something of a regular, he affects a persona that balances aspects of Jimmy Stewart and
Will Rogers, but it’s clear he’s distressed, annoyed even, if not immediately recognized
by the staff or patrons. And there’s another paradox too. If the place is full enough for
a buzz to generate around his presence, he takes on the beleaguered, discomfited look
of a man from whom something has been stolen, for whom there is no rest, no privacy –
only a plague of nits inexhaustibly ravenous for his soul.
Keep to your book. You never read Suzuki before. Via the Sung masters he asks:
Where do we meet after you are dead, and the ashes are all scattered around?
New York is a symphony played in the key of real estate.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 62
The northwest corner of 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue has got itself a tutelary
deity. An ancient man, a couple of inches shorter than you, say five-foot-five. Grizzled
red cheeks, pipe jutting from between stove-in teeth, he wears well-worn clothes, pants
too short and absurdly delicate shoes – tasseled loafers. Yet somehow, standing there
every morning, hands clasped behind his back, he projects the air of an old salt keeping
a weather eye out for changes in the atmosphere that only attuned old bones like his
can fathom. So stalwart his posture that from a block’s distance, in early steep-rayed
sun, he looks more like a rough-hewn figurine in a seaside gift shop than a flesh-and-
The consistency of his presence on this particular corner led you to associate him
with the Chelsea Garden, the outdoor nursery that took up half the block north to south
and some six lots west, and aerated the whole neighborhood. Many were the times
you’d stand at the gate while Gwen, wandering among the cast concrete lawn fountains
and lush foliage, explored her own rilling, blossoming, miniature Alhambra.
The nursery didn’t open until mid-morning, so your imagination led you to
speculate, against all reason, that the old salt served as a kind of night watchman. But
then, when the nursery was displaced to make way for a block of “luxury” corporate
pieds à terres, the fellow still anchored his spot on the corner, occasionally patrolling a
few paces along the sidewalk beside the blue plywood hoardings. Gales and
nor’easters notwithstanding, when you made your morning pilgrimage to the café, he
anchored the corner – even as foundation was poured and scaffolding made tunnels of
the sidewalks. You’d look out for him on your way back uptown, but invariably he’d
have vanished till next morning. Down the block there’s a residence of some sort, the
Frederick Fleming House. That must be where he lives.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 63
Over years and through several pairs of exiguous shoes you projected and
elaborated his myth. Gwen scratched her name in damp cement at the construction
site’s edge, another city-kid rite fulfilled. She graduated from pre-K to K and started
taking piano lessons with Andrejika at the General Theological Seminary, just down the
block from Le Gamin. And because you walked up Ninth Avenue together only in the
afternoon, she never encountered the old salt.
Only once did you see him engaged in conversation. These days quantities of
routinely beautiful women live in Chelsea, and his interlocutor was one of their number
– dressed for the office and clicking rapidly east on Twenty-first Street, carrying a
bundle of laundry. As she approached, the mariner stretched forth his arms as though
seeking to relieve her of her load. But she held fast to it and for an instant, you thought
they might embrace, laundry and all. Then she stopped short, smiled and made
pleasantries for a few moments, before hurrying on.
You observed this encounter out of earshot and saw his opaque face open up,
and this emboldened you to strike up an acquaintance. Perhaps he possessed a
cornucopia of lore, and was bursting to pass it onto a sympathetic soul. And who knew
what the future held? Once the oversize bricks piled up on curbside pallets assumed
the shape of an apartment building, he might vanish altogether. Nothing to do but
seize the day.
The next morning, a pleasant one, instead of keeping your distance as you
passed by, you presented yourself directly in front of him, smiled and said – rather
loudly since you thought he might be hard of hearing – “See you here every day, don’t
I?” The mariner backed up a few steps and shot you a look of primal horror – the sort a
torturer might receive if he accosted a former victim in the street. Well, back to the
drawing board. Some people take longer than others to warm up. You’ll return to
passing by silently for a few days, then try a simple nod of acknowledgment. See what
Meanwhile the building’s almost up and done. Never seen construction quite so
shoddy. Cinderblock columns – stacked without apparent reinforcing and poorly
mortared into the bargain – support huge horizontal beams on which they’ve laid
precast floorslabs with about a three inch overlap. Not much tolerance. Ninth
Avenue’s a big truck route – lots of vibrations. Seven stories and counting. Adam, an
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 64
to ten stories without using any kind of vertical reinforcement. No union labor on this
site either, so pickets from the building trades come every couple of weeks, set up their
giant inflatable rat and pass out leaflets decrying the builder’s scurrilous labor practices.
When you were a kid, the developers of those big, generic brick-faced apartment
buildings used to give them high-toned names, like The Vermeer, The St-Germain, or
The Camelot. For this one they should just cut to the chase and call it The Mexico City.
A year since Nancy’s memorial and you finally get around to reading Mabel
Todd’s The Thinking Body. She opens with an epigraph from Yeats’s “The King of the
Great Clock Tower”:
Soon, if all holds on course, a cartonful of Divided hardcovers will arrive on your
doorstep. And in bookstores just post-Christmas – in time for Y2K to not end the world
as we don’t know it.
Would that you’d read Todd’s perceptions of the body when you were actively
writing the towers’ story. An astonishing freshness hails across a seventy year divide:
“Within a given system, we cannot have a working design for two centers of gravity.”
And later: “The terrified cat at the top of the elm, his muscular strength greatly
enhanced by his adrenaline secretion stops digesting because of his more pressing
needs. Rescue him and he curls up in his corner and is soon fast asleep, recovering his
equilibrium. Man, however, being the only animal that can be afraid all the time,
prolongs his conflicts even after the danger is past. Proust died of introspection long
before he died of pneumonia, burned out by the chemistry of seven volumes…”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 65
From the well at the bottom of the long escalator – subterranean enough to
almost imagine it’s the London Underground – a commanding voice rises up as you
descend. The body from which the voice emanates belongs to a compact, middle-aged
man who sits on a crate, leaning back against the tiled wall. Dun colored clothes,
neither fresh nor filthy, the vagueness of his body emphasizes his face, round but not
jowly, skin the color of café from La Taza, neatly trimmed moustache, eyes dancing like
a mischievous law professor posing a hypothetical. But this man’s crate is no podium,
it’s more of a pulpit, and his tones are stentorian, hallelujah-cadenced, inflected with
“Thanksgiving,” he says. “Thanksgiving!” Pauses. Gives a self-satisfied nod.
“We live in a violent society.” Disgorged from the escalator, you join the tide of rush
hour travelers flowing along the platform. “We live in a violent society.” Lets it sink in.
“Go on – plunge the knife into the turkey!” Toward the far end of the station you
stride, like your fellow travelers, as purposefully as possible. “Plunge the knife deeper
into the turkey!” After years, you know the drill cold. Make for the spot where the
second door of the last car opens. That way, when you get off at your stop, you’ll be
right in front of the stairs that lead up your corner.
Midway down the platform, the parable of the violated turkey crossfades with
open strumming. Familiar chords. A honeyed voice, this one also belongs to a man
sitting on a crate. Close in age to the Thanksgiving Jeremiah, but a shade darker-
skinned. His register shifts to a Gospel falsetto that takes full advantage of the tunnel’s
His guitar case lies open before him, velvet lining dotted with coin offerings and
an occasional crumpled bill. Here comes the E train, barreling down the vaulted nave.
Add your offering.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 66
Another notice in the elevator for yet another funeral. Esther Feinberg. You
don’t recognize the name, but you’d surely know her face. Probably once a garment
worker. Gone, or soon gone, a whole generation of five foot tall women, most of them
born in the old country: Eastern Europe, Sicily or Naples. They leave here feet first, as
Bea used to say. Just like she did.
How is it that today, everywhere you wander in this most diverse of cities, a
substantial portion of the white men resemble Helmut Kohl?
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 67
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