May 11 – Chelsea Post Office – Midafternoon
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|May 11 – Chelsea Post Office – Midafternoon
Young woman ahead of you in line. Flimsy blue jeans. Printed across her ass, in
huge, distressed, white block letters: RQUST RCK CTY. Ain’t got a vowel to sit on.
Funny snatch of conversation leaks into your left ear from Table 5. A guy telling
his friend about a former partner, a fellow afflicted with “male answer syndrome.” No
matter what the question, his partner always came back with an authoritative
pronouncement. Laughable yes, but wouldn’t it be great to inhabit, if only for a
moment, a little island of certainty where the insistent refrain inside your head might
fall silent – the evermore tired and frustrating mantra “I don’t know”?
If there’s a reader here, you’d love to reach out and embrace him now, reassure
him that the narrator survives spiritually intact, that it’s worth pressing on through a
few more pages until the great turning comes. But you don’t know, do you? All you
can say is that the bloke who’s walking through this landscape is trying to square with
himself as best he can. At the Met he saw it, caligraphed on a 17th century scroll by
Does anybody notice this kind of scenery? Does anybody notice?
If only you’d been in the Boy Scouts. Perhaps you could sing the reader a
• • •
Caption to a photo on the front page of the New York Times: “Daniel Stanley, a
deputy secretary of defense, and an officer carried images of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners
to a viewing session for senators.” The officer wears an Army uniform covered with a
regiment’s supply of fruit salad and brass. Both he and Stanley bear satchels in their
left hands as they stride in semi-blur across the columned, marble-paved gallery.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 467
Incongruous – the satchels look innocent, like school lunch bags. Whatever they hold,
the cat’s already out. Any time he wants he can look at a king.
The news is just too toxic. Back to reading Bloch in search of a bracing dose of
ethics. Sefer Hasidim, written in the thirteenth century. It states, very clearly: “If a Jew
attempts to kill a non-Jew, help the non-Jew.” Keep to your book.
The WC door is bolted from within. By the shadow through the crack you can
tell someone’s perched on the crapper. You’re certain it’s a man. Take your time, bro.
His cell phone goes off, the alarm set on rapidfire whine: anh-aan-ahn-aan-anh-aan-anh-
aan-aahn. A conversation ensues. You move a few steps back so as not to hear words.
Muffled tones. He rings off. Flush. Sink water. Dryer. Bolt flies back, door swings.
He exits, speed dialing another call. You put down the Times you’ve been scanning
while you wait. The picture is of Rumsfeld wearing a business suite and pair of beige
shitkickers – Timberlands? – stomping around Al-Ghraib in company with that
oxymoron, a Major General, and a host of other certified fools.
How many exit wounds does it take to make an exit strategy? An eggshit
strategy. Don’t put all your eggshit into one basket. Don’t get too eggshited. It’ll all
end in tears.
On the way here, you passed a man walking two dogs so similar in type, so
closely leashed together that you registered, for an instant, one dog with two heads.
Cerberus in Chelsea. No Cerberus has three heads. Flash back to a Assyrian dog
figurine you saw once at the museum. Made of terra-cotta, its base inscribed with the
motto: Don’t think, bite!
Your blizzard of confusion must have something to do with the arrival of the
movie Troy in a theatre near you. You’ve clicked on the trailer and at least they got the
Hard to imagine it’s less than three years since the fall of your own topless
towers. So far removed in feeling that they might as well be myth. Once upon a time,
the firemen took charge of digging down. No one appointed them, they just did it, and
when they got to where they found the human ash and other stuff of what had once
been people, they called a halt. Declared the ground sacred. Would dig no further. So
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 468
Giuliani called the cops in and forced the firemen out, at gunpoint. Ask anyone who
was there. They’ll tell you what went down.
Impossible to perfect the world. So try getting the words right on a page.
Sunday morning fugue and fumble – that’s the game.
• • •
Two women, blind, make their way north on Eighth Avenue between 23rd and
24th. The first sweeps and taps a white cane with a ball on the end. About seven paces
behind, her companion follows, holding fast to the harness of a sweet-faced black
Labrador. Seeming to lose track of where she is, the woman in the lead tucks her cane
beneath her arm and begins to feel her way along the windows and mullions of the
“Are you looking for Dunkin Donuts?”
She turns toward you. “Yes.”
“Just about ten steps further on.”
You watch as she negotiates the distance, feels the edge of the doorway, grasps
the handle, swings it open. “Come on, Sandy!” she calls. Sandy and the Lab close the
gap. When you turn back, they’re all inside.
Chances are they’ve journeyed crosstown from Selis Manor on 23rd Street, a
quarter mile away. They could’ve stopped at Krispee Kreme – it’s closer – but they
didn’t, so this must be the place. Taste – taste and texture are all!
At the corner you wait for the cars to pass, then cross against the light. An image
of Sandy comes easily to you. She’s dunking a cruller with brightly colored sprinkles
into a light coffee with one sugar. It was the other woman you spoke to, made verbal
contact with. But your mind won’t conjure what kind of donut she’s having.
Instead, unbidden, a nightmare vision comes to you of your country as a snake,
desperately trying to keep itself cool by exporting heat. By toasting others. Grilling
them in displaced thermal energy. Frantically importing the oil it takes to chill things
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 469
out. Of course, now it makes sense, you’re a cell in a reptile, not a mammal. A cold-
blooded beast. A thing that sloughs off skins.
• • •
Late afternoon. Word comes that a girl Gwen met for the first time at a birthday
party yesterday was run over and killed a few hours later, near her home in Sunnyside.
Gwen had mentioned her, said she thought she might have made a new friend. Now it
dawns on you that you met her too – tall for eleven, pretty, with braces – just didn’t
catch her name at the time.
When you arrived at the restaurant, the guests were dispersing and the birthday
girl’s mom asked you and Gwen to wait outside with Hallie since her father had
phoned to say he was on his way. So you stood there, chatting a moment, under the
awning of La Bonne Soupe.
“Where’s he coming from?”
“I don’t know.”
“What I mean is, do you live in Manhattan?”
Then dad arrived, pulled his SUV over on the far side of the street. Spotting him,
Hallie took off. “Watch out,” you called after her, but she seemed not to hear you,
blithely jaywalked 54th Street without a glance to her left or right.
You were a few blocks from to Central Park, and the weather was decent, so you
went climbing with Gwen on her favorite rocks. Then see-sawed, then swung. As she
worked to get higher, you held your hand up as a benchmark for her toe to touch, until,
pumping with all her might, she surpassed even your height on tiptoe and her feet
soared out of reach.
Big coverage of Hallie’s death in both tabloids. Front page photos. Language so
sentimental it would make DW Griffith’s fillings twinge. Both articles call her “an
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 470
Some enterprising person has set up an impromptu newsstand on the corner
near where you come out of the subway: two milkcrates, side by side, with stacks of the
twin tabloids stacked atop them.
By their headlines shall they be known. Keeping on the Hallie story, the Daily
News, (New York’s Hometown Newspaper,) devotes its front page to AMAZING
GRACE: Mourning Dad Consoles Woman Who Ran Down His Daughter. The Post, on the
other hand, is back to hardball minimalism: “WMD” – this in the largest white capital
letters on a black background available in Christendom. What’s that about? You pony
up a quarter. Flip to the article as you walk. Ah, a sarin-tainted shell has been
“discovered” in Iraq. There ya go – proof!
May 19 – Early Morning
Before you leave for the café, you turn on the radio and the room fills with the
youthful, yet fulsome and self-satisfied voice of Satirius Johnson. Most mornings you
find the smugness of these NPR personalities unbearable, particularly before coffee, and
end up flipping off the switch before you even hear what they’re saying. But today
Satirius is so plainly hugging himself as he reels off the list of upcoming programs that
you find your mood leavening into an almost nitrous oxide headspace. Then, in a trice,
the broadcast switches to news from Washington delivered by a fixture of public radio,
a deeply earnest fellow, and so venerable that the audible clicking of his dentures
provides a welcome punctuation to his monotone.
You let the radio play on, but tune your mind out, having set your bad-tidings
threshold pretty low and proceed to pull-wrestle the bedclothes into a semblance of
“made.” But then, from out of the acoustic wash, a snatch of recorded testimony by
Rudy’s former police commissioner juts up, sharp-pointed as bowsprit of a sinking
ship: “Go to any of the communications companies out there, go to the best, go to
Motorola, go to the best there is, show me one radio show me one radio that they will
guarantee you this radio will go through that metal, it will go through the debris, it will
go through the dust, you will have one hundred percent communications one hundred
percent of the time. There is none. There is none!”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 471
atmosphere of the 9/11 commission chamber slowly dissipates. Unplug your laptop to
take to the café. Mildly surprised not to have to sweep off a dusting of ash.
• • •
On the street, fully half of the kids head for PS 11, Gwen’s old school, pull
wheeled bags behind them, looking for all the world like a tribe of flight attendants in
training. But it’s nomadism they’re prepping for. How many will ever see their names
in a fat paper directory of folks whose households are connected to a “land line”? And
there you walk, caught in the backdraft of their revving engines.
Square named for Horace Greely (“Mechanics, artisans, laborers, the unemployed, you
who are able to leave the cities should do so without delay. Fly – scatter through the
land – go to the Great West”). He injures three, one critically, before the cops shoot
him. And the wonder is, this doesn’t happen every day and twice on Mondays.
Giuliani heckled at the Commission by families demanding “answers.” By all
accounts the proceedings are more “o” than “co,” and probably that first syllable ought
to be dropped altogether.
Yesterday late afternoon you had coffee with Wolfgang – the last before he’s off
to Europe for the summer. You sat on his terrace, in the shadows of the cranes and
fast-rising steelwork of the new WTC 7. Talked about his “consumption” book – in
particular how only form is changed in the transit from state to state, matter itself being
indestructible. Funny how time and again and always by wide margins, New Yorkers
tell pollsters that they want the WTC rebuilt exactly as it was. Often with Wolfgang,
your thoughts turn in wide circles, impossible to steer productively into the
conversation. Both Alcestis and A Winter’s Tale feature women – wives – brought back
from the dead, their forms unchanged. Yet something’s not the same about them.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 472
light – saw, for the first time in all these years, how exquisitely the copper-clad
buttresses at the pinnacle support its spire.
• • •
Midafternoon. Walking west on 22nd toward Le G., you spot a sparrow, its beak
clamped on a length of plastic twine a good yard long, hopping tentatively across the
street. When a car comes down the block, or a pedestrian walks too close, it flies off,
but returns as soon as the coast is clear. No way it will get aloft with something so
heavy. Or perhaps it’s not a question of gross weight, but of the unwieldiness of the
thing. But by fits and starts it succeeds in dragging its burden about a third of the way
across. But then, startled into flight again, it disappears. You pause a moment,
wondering if it will come back. Look toward the tree the sparrow flew toward and
become aware of a great commotion of bird voices coming from where its leaves grow
thickest. Were they calling this loud all along, or have you only noticed the sound now
that your attention’s been drawn there?
You face the afternoon with a sick feeling. Late this morning, you got a phone
call from an agent you met through a mutual friend. She praises your work to the stars,
but allows as how she “doesn’t think she’s right for you.” Cool. That’s cool. Nothing
ventured, nothing gained. Your talks were interesting in and of themselves. But still,
there’s that fucking string to get up into the nest, somehow. Do you have the
wherewithal to press on? See, your thoughts run, that sparrow’s got more sense than you.
But then, you made the string yourself, Charlie. You gauged the load. And you know
how to wind the cord up so you can lift it. Or cut it into manageable sections. And then
too, the work has its own heart’s desire. What’s needed is a movement of the Tao.
• • •
p.m. Au Gamin, immersed in writing. You look up just as fellow bops through
the door, the spitting image of Peter Rondinone. Jesus, Peter, what are you doing here?
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 473
Hang on. This dude’s not Peter – it’s a guy with eerily similar body language.
Still, it pulls back in time to when Peter was a morning regular at the old café,
Lanciani’s. Italian-Russian, Peter grew up in East Harlem – one of the few working-
class white writers around. Strange guy, smart. Playing the angles. Conned himself
into a job teaching at Lehman. Managed to get one collection out from Picador. Always
upbeat. Hung himself. Had a daughter around Gwen’s age. No, this guy looks
nothing like Peter.
Smell of mega garlic wafts over from the kitchen area. 3:45. Changing of the
waitress guard. Eyoko’s on the evening shift, comes over to give you a hug. She’s got a
kind of Gwen-nature – small but wiry enough to crack ribs. Which reminds you, in half
an hour, Gwen will stop by on her way to her piano lesson. Your stomach’s begins its
transit back up its accustomed position. String’s got a little lighter. Uncountable
vehicles roll by, early rush hour. Like a Friday, only it’s Thursday. Red van across the
Avenue, parked in front of Aphrodite cleaners. Shadow play of the honey locust’s
leaves along its flanks. A big tree for these parts, three stories plus. Full spring bloom.
A woman strolls by with her little daughter who’s maybe two. They hold hands,
arms swing easy. Mom’s slender: dark, dark brown skin, copper hair in spiral strands
escaping from beneath her puffy visored denim hat. And her top’s a stretch affair, a
stylized wildflower field so bright you blink, and for a moment it all slides back thirty-
something years to where you’re tripping through a frictionless universe. A mile of
string, give me a mile. Two cans. And we’ll make a telephone.
The other day, toward the end of your conversation with your ex-prospective
agent, came an image nearly Dantean in its vividness. You saw a wall before you – an
unbreachable, unleapable, intransigent blockade of indifference and contempt
confronting – affronting – any work of active imagination.
Even as she waxed admiring, her words reinforced the wall, piled on more
blocks. And flowing beneath her praise, an undertone of accusation: how dare you
write books she feared she could not sell?
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 474
anyone else’s writing be spared? What were you thinking? That somehow the wall
would make a grand exception, that its stones would part wide enough to allow your
This morning, you leaned into a shoulder stretch against the tiled wall in the
shower and in the warmth and steam, as you breathed into them, your muscles gave,
loosened. You’d better learn to play it looser still, or pack it up.
The 9/11 hearings grind on. The bereaved – at least those most publicly vocal –
demand to know who’s responsible. There’s a part of you that wants ask them, in
classic Jewish question-for-question style: So, how many SUVs does your family drive?
Another part of you would love to put Cheney, Bush and Rumsfeld on
waterboards and hear in their own words why they made it, or let it, happen. You’ve
heard it said that torture produces bad intelligence – people, after all, just want the
awfulness to stop. They’ll confess to anything. But you’d bet that Dubya et al might
use it as an opportunity, however unsought, to unburden themselves. There must be
some part of them, however armored-over, that would rejoice to tell the truth – to find
release from the burden of their constant lies.
Once, back when you were sixteen or so, inflexible in your radicalism and
aggrievedness, you had a conversation with your Uncle Joe, or, more accurately,
subjected him to a diatribe against the injustices and abuses of the world. He listened to
it all with a combination of respect for your passion, and the bemusement of one who
had spent his life careful not to overreach his own emotional limits. When you paused
for breath, he said simply, “You can make a case for anything.”
At the time you took this badly. Such deplorable moral relativism – though you
didn’t know the term then. Utterly dismissible. Clearly your father’s brother was
nothing more than a spineless Panglossian. In the intervening years you have come to
believe that Joe, in his unassuming way, was attempting to plant in your awareness the
notion that the material of self-justification lies in language. He was telling you to be
careful what you build.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 475
• • •
Maritime day – a commemoration, now largely forgotten, of the first transatlantic
steamship crossing in 1819. Celebrated this year with boat tours of the harbor. Thus
the three of you aboard a hokey fake paddlewheeler bound out from the Frying Pan
pier at 24th Street, down river and then west along the Kill Van Kull, the ship channel
between Staten Island and Jersey that leads to the Newark-Elizabeth container port. All
the way to the Bayonne Bridge and back round again. Out of the mud in the Kill rise
the masts of sunken ships. Over there, on the Staten Island side, the ferry, the one that
was in that horrible accident last year – pilot zoned out and she plowed straight into the
side of a concrete pier without slowing, killed eleven people – up in drydock, almost
ready to go into back service. Over in Jersey, a huge scrap yard, the largest in the New
York area. Exports all its metal to China. Do the beams in those vast new Shanghai
skyscrapers contain recycled H-girders from the WTC? And what would that do to the
Feng-Shui? Where, oh where did all that material go? Did anyone keep track, or was it
more effectual not to?
See where the Moran and McAllister tugs live when they’re not taking harbor
pilots out to board tankers at Ambrose light, nudging freighters into port, or hauling
Bouchard barges full of pretty much anything that can pass along a waterway. As you
head upriver, a glimpse of great ships in a line stretching under the Verrazano and into
the narrows beyond. And in South Brooklyn, the only active freight docks left in New
York City. Coffee, coffee, coffee.
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