NOUVELLES DE NULLE PART
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- August 10 – Oxford – Midmorning
- August 11 – Kelmscott Manor
- August 12 – Hay-on-Wye, Wales
- August 14 – Bath – Late Afternoon
- August 15 – Oxford – Afternoon
- August 17 – Museum of London
- August 18
- August 25 – Midafternoon
- August 27
- September 2
- September 8 – Eurostar between Paris London – Late Afternoon
NOUVELLES DE NULLE PART
August 5 – Air India to London
On the movie screen, a computer-generated cartoon character named Stan the
Exercise Man instructs you on how to avoid deep vein thrombosis, a.k.a. “Tourist Class
Port Meadow, the last remaining preserve of Common Land in England. Cows
and horses freely graze upon it, and of course anyone can walk here where ever and
whenever they like. In winter sometimes, the Thames partially floods it and several
hundred acres turn to skating rink. Remains of iron, and even bronze age settlements.
Still possible to trace the outlines of livestock pens dating back perhaps a hundred
generations. Despite the boundaries clearly visible on the map, when you set out to
explore it on foot, the Commons seems as though it could go on for ever.
Walking round the grounds of William Morris’s home, now turned museum,
Gwen gets a nettle sting. Seeing her distress, a woman on the staff, about your age,
searches along the bank of the stream for some dock leaves and finding a patch, pulls
one off and plasters it to Gwen’s knee. Remarkable how quickly the irritation vanishes.
In the bookshop, pick up a copy of News from Nowhere which you’ve somehow
missed reading all these years. The narrator, after awakening in a utopian future, rows
up from London, through a transfigured landscape cleansed of industry, to this “resting
place” on the Upper Thames. Flash back on a quote of Morris’s you dug up for your
talk at Byrdcliffe last year. In 1884, as the black smoke of a thousand factories engulfed
the countryside, he’d imagined “Wonderful days a-coming, when all shall be better
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 500
A town full of bookstores. Off a kiosk packed with mouldering paperbacks, a
battered volume practically leaps into your hands. Hoaxes. In 1824 a rumor went
round that Mayor Allen was worried about the accumulated weight of the new
buildings at the south end of Manhattan. The solution: saw across the island
horizontally below the surface and turn it round so the Battery faces north. Broadsheets
circulated showing the amazing, elaborately engineered tools to be employed in the
heroic endeavor. On the appointed day, numerous contractors and thousands of
workmen converged where the earthworks were to begin. Somewhere, someone was
laughing up their sleeve.
August 14 – Bath – Late Afternoon
You pause to look across the expanse of lawn – take in as much of as you can of
the sweep of Royal Crescent. A local woman, white-haired and eager to share with a
visitor, engages you in conversation. Some of the houses, she says, were damaged by
bombs during the war and a church destroyed over on the convex side of the arc. But
why bomb Bath? you ask – it hardly seems strategic target. “Oh no, not at all strategic.
It was what we used to call a Baedeker raid. They went after anything that rated three
The sign says
, but you walk straight past it and into the quad at
University College. Then through a passageway and into a second quad. A well-
dressed, well-fed fellow of middle years and his lady eye you as they exit through the
door onto High Street, but don’t raise an alarm. You’ve come on a tip from Eric B. who
studied at Oriel in the eighties. In the middle of the quad, two men in gardening
clothes, neither of them young – one pink-cheeked and bony, the other a squarely-built
fellow with the air of a Rastafarian – stand conversing, leaning on their shovels. You
chance it and approach them. “Excuse me, I understand there is a statue of Shelley
here. Can you tell me where I might find it?”
The Rastaman looks at you sidelong. His pink-cheeked companion replies, “I’m
not certain, but it’s very likely through that doorway there.” You thank him and follow
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 501
where he points. At the corner of the quad, you open the door and enter a narrow
vestibule which gates onto a circular room not much larger than a dozen feet in
diameter. There he is, sunk a yard below grade and screened off by an iron gate: Percy
B. in pure white marble, naked and supine upon a bier-like altar. Newly, impossibly,
romantically dead. Life sized. Kneeling before and beneath his figure, a winged muse.
Sculpted in deep green stone, she gestures to the heavens with one hand and in the
other holds the poet’s now-silent lyre.
A starry dome above, skylit by an oculus and clerestory window. Round about,
the walls are inscribed with his words:
Envy and calumny and hate and pain
And that unrest men miscall delight.
You return to the lane that runs behind the college and rejoin your family who’ve
been waiting patiently for your return. Gwen, who pronounced him “a good poet”
after you read her “Ozymandias” in a Hay-on-Wye bookshop, demands to see Shelley
now that you’ve found him. Over Katie’s misgivings about the potential consequences
of trespassing, the lot of you troop back in. Shelley lies there still and since no one is
around, you copy down another inscription:
Heaven’s light forever shines. Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-colored glass.
• • •
Anarchist graffito on a Broad Street wall: a stylized heart shape with an A set
inside it. Below, the words UTOPIA IS IN YOU.
Was Jack Jewish, at least in part? Who knows? Semitic-looking for sure, and he
seemed to have an affinity for Jews, not least your mother and her family. Darton lore
has it that your paternal grandmother was a true Cockney. Born within the sound of
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 502
Bow bells and all that – though where precisely – well who knows that either? Perhaps
your late aunt Nell knew, but you never asked her and now its too late. Raised
nominally Episcopalian, Nell’s cosmology probably came closer to a mix of self-
invented paganism and Confucianism than anything else. She sent out intelligently-
chosen and beautifully wrapped Christmas gifts, but you recall her speaking about the
Solstice in an excited, almost conspiratorial way that got you thinking that had to be the
real holiday. Once, late in her life, she told you over lunch that she wasn’t worried
about death – she was happy to imagine herself as an atom of hydrogen orbiting out in
the universe somewhere.
Dartons as a whole, yourself included, aren’t big backward-lookers. You get
curious about ancestors from time to time, but that seems less fun than speculating
about the future. So the genealogical bug has yet to bite. That said, the exhibit on
Cockney London, and specifically the note that from the 1880s, large numbers of Jews
from the Pale settled in the East End – 140,000 by 1905 – re-begs the question of Jack’s,
and therefore your and Gwen’s gene pool. Great grandfather Isaac? Great
grandmother Rachel? “I do not know,” says the Great Bell of Bow.
A host of strange and telling social material here too. One engraving, dated 1817,
shows a black street performer named Joseph Johnson. Crippled while serving as a
merchant sailor and discharged, Johnson couldn’t collect a pension or parish relief
because he was a foreigner – probably born in the West Indies. So he got a living by
mounting a model of a fully-rigged ship on his cap and performing a kind of dance on
the street – propped up by a crutch and cane – bowing his head to simulate the action of
the rolling seas.
Here too, evidence of world in which young people were seen as merely smaller,
more exploitable creatures than their elders. Documents relating to the Society for
Superceding the Necessity for Climbing Boys, an organization founded circa 1800. The
society advocated the use of brushes on poles, instead of children armed with rags for
cleaning chimneys. Their great success was an act of Parliament in 1834 forbidding the
apprenticing of chimneysweeps younger than fourteen.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 503
At St. George’s Library, Windsor, you come upon Roberts’ Marchants’ Map of
Commerce, 1671, which shows California as detached from the North American
mainland, and the following inscription: “This California was in times past thought to
be part of the Continent, and so made in all maps, but by further discoveries was found
to be an islande.” Another persistent error set right by the clearsighted Brits!
August 21 – Putney
Something’s snagged you, a bad cold or bronchitis. A lung thing for sure. And
this as you’re revisiting the 9/11 material of these notes. Did the writing bring on the
illness? Doesn’t matter. Part of you says, you’re crazy, you’re 102 degrees, just get into
bed and sleep. But the other, stronger part of you wants to burn through those days.
Get it done. In a fever. In a blaze of sweat. Half-shielded by delirium.
August 22 – Westminster Abbey – 11:30 a.m.
You’ve come for Eucharist service. See the inside of this place without getting
clobbered for the admission fee, and give Gwen a taste of High Church. Gorgeous choir
in the midst of singing Glory Be to God on High when your coughing kicks in – pretty
bad for a moment before you manage to get it under control. A hand touches your
shoulder. In the aisle, next to you stands a steward, holding out a cup of water.
Perhaps he’s Indian, certainly not a whitefella. His face wears smile that can only be
described as real. A small kindness. The water helps.
Absurdly banal sermon. Your eyes stray about. Mounted on a column to your
right, a bronze memorial bust of Blake, looking as mad as mad can be. You crane
round, look at the statuary behind you. By some odd pull of gravity, you’ve ended up
beside the poet’s corner. The service over, you take a quick walk round. Pass the tombs
of Chaucer, Byron, Dylan Thomas, Auden – a host of others. On the way out, down the
nave, you pass the Newton cenotaph. Quite a piece of statuary: the wing’d Genius of
the alchemist-turned-scientist springs forth from a transfigured world.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 504
your train, apart from the windows, have been covered in a kind of wallpaper graphic
of every imaginable Disney character. Grotesque for starts, and totally unnerving.
But now, here you are in Montparnasse walking down one of the most beautiful
alleys in creation, rue des Thermopyles. Mind the dog poop on the cobblestones, gaze
at the overflowing windowboxes. Read the walls. Neighborhood notices and
spontaneous artworks. At intervals, a stenciled graffito: World Without Bush.
Sixty years ago, give or take an hour or so, the tricouleur flew from atop the Tour
Eiffel and General von Choltitz was taken as a prisoner to Hotel Meurice, where he
formally signed the surrender of the city to General Leclerc.
Today, just before a cloudburst drives the crowd under every available awning,
you watch down the rue des Lavanderies as a procession of olive green Sherman tanks
belching clouds of petrol exhaust rumbles along the quai de la Mégisserie. On the
turret and flanks of each blindé, some painted with American insignias, others with
French, perch several men in military uniform. For some reason, the tanks are rolling
As they have since the anniversary of D-Day on June 6, the pages of Libération
continue to chronicle the advance of the Allies three score years ago. Recent stories
have concentrated on the FFI’s (Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur) battle for Paris. Two
days from now, the Republicans will officially occupy New York City – a city that, like
Jerusalem, truly belongs to the world – in order to demonstrate their unquestionable
hold on power. There is no Arc de Triomphe for them to march beneath, yet their
coming signifies an act of conquest nonetheless. The populace has been admonished,
by domestic Vichyists of every stripe – including ex-Mayor Koch, nominal Democrat
and staunch Bush supporter – to “make nice” and yield the city up obligingly to those
who’ve wounded it and insult it still.
You’re here. Ought you be there instead? Four summers now you’ve traveled
abroad – always incorporating a Paris sojourn into your trip – in an attempt to wean
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 505
yourself from sympathetically – you want to say symbiotically – tracking New York
through its every sigh and murmur. For several weeks per year, you’ve deliberately sat
out several weeks of your city’s dance.
Then too, since the mid-’90s – apart from a frenzy of media interviews and public
appearances in the days immediately following 9/11 – you’ve done bloody little,
coasting by at a level of cultivated dispassion that feels ever less vital. What to do?
You’ve waited for the emergence of some sort of resistant strain to join up with, and felt
disgust and disappointment that nothing’s materialized. As a bulwark against utter
alienation, you turned to writing about your city’s life in relation to your own. If you
sensed the presence of any sort of solidarity, even incipient, that you might align
yourself with, there’s no question about it, you’d be home now.
What you haven’t tried these past years is moving beyond the cold comfort of
collective victimhood and actively rattling the cage. When you return, it will be nearly
three years to the day since you watched plane number two hook round and make its
plunge into the south tower. Whatever happens at the convention will have happened.
The city will be what it is. You’ll reset your watch to New York time and call it Year 0.
In the course of deciphering Libération, you’ve had to look up a host of words,
among them rappeler. It’s a goodie, full of evocation – meaning variously to call back,
call up, to recall, to remind somebody of something. And then there’s the reflexive
form se rappeler: to remember, to recall, to recollect.
What to preserve and what to efface? What to protect and what to dismantle?
In 1793, when the eradication of the symbols of the ancien régime was at its
height, a revolutionary journalist wrote: “Soon it will at last be possible for a republican
to walk through the streets of Paris without running the risk of damaging his eyes by
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 506
having to see all those emblems, all those degrading attributes of royalty, which have
been carved or painted on almost every public building or private house.”
The term for such attempts to undo visual reminders of the old order was coined
the next year by Abbé Henri-Baptiste Grégoire – a revolutionary who somehow
managed to retain his common sense and humanity: vandalisme.
• • •
At a cyber café on rue Raymond Losserand, you check the Times online. In the
Metro section, a story about Republican delegates shocked by protestors getting in their
faces, making not so nice. Filled with gratitude for the saturation level of cops shielding
the delegates, Joseph Kyrillos, Republican chairman for the garden state gushes: “New
York City is a fortress and I love it!”
Welcome that month.
After considerable experimentation, you’ve found your a.m. café: Le 57. Not
the equivalent of Le G. – nothing is – but the atmosphere feels a lot more casual and
inclusive than any other place you’ve found. A couple of blocks from Levent’s
apartment on the south side of rue Pernety a few yards west of the rue Raymond
Losserand, the 57’s front is entirely glass. If you sit on the banquette side of the table
closest to the sidewalk, you can take in what’s happening at the intersection and on
Pernety, even behind, you via mirrors that run up the windowframe and the bar
The young woman who runs the place mornings has an edge to her. Dark
haired, with very pale skin, full, almost mouée’d lips and small, snaggled front teeth,
she chews her cuticles as she waits by the espresso machine for the cup to fill, delivers
your café allongé with a swagger that plays up her navel stud and, as she turns back to
the bar, flashes the tattoo on her upper arm: a rotund devil, bright red, brandishing a
black pitchfork. Four days now and she anticipates your order as you walk in and
offers a smile and a wave as you leave.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 507
At five to nine the interior lies in shadow. At 9:02, the sun pops up behind the chimney
stacks of the buildings on Losserand and casts its beneficent rays with such intensity
that you have to squint. And the angle’s such that it turns shadows of the ashtray and
your cup and saucer into fantastic architectural silhouettes on the simulated mahogany
The sound system pumps an American funk-jazz mix that somehow feels created
for export to trop cool Paris cafés. Maybe I’m invisible to the world warbles the soul
chanteuse. This followed by a catchy dance tune organized around a rap refrain you
couldn’t make up if you tried: “Everybody, everybody – get into it, let’s get stoopid –
get retarded [a beat] Let’s get retarded in here!” Repeat, repeat.
Nine fifteen, and the globe has rotated to the point where the sun hits a bit more
obliquely. Go Pegasus. Light muted enough to read Libération. Find out what’s
happening with the two French journalists taken hostage in Iraq.
Heading to the Metro, thence to Versailles. Bought bread, a half wheel of
Reblochon cheese, a sackful of mirabelle plums. All that’s missing is a tomato. Stop
outside Chez Rachid, the épicerie just down rue de l’Ouest near the corner of rue
Pernety. “Pour aujourd’hui,” you say. Rachid picks a ripe one out of the basket for
you. He’s got something of Bassry’s solid, genial affect. If you were going to be around
a little longer, you’d find out where he’s from. And learn the name of the young
woman at the 57, and the Chinese guy who runs the place at night and with whom you
exchange waves when you pass. But the tomato, the tomato is excellent.
You lie on the grass with a view down Louis XIV’s immense canal. Gwen leans
her back against your legs and draws in her sketchbook. Katie lies perpendicular to
you, rests her head in the hollow of your stomach. Close your eyes. Sound of steel-
shod hooves. You crane your neck back and glimpse them upside-down, two immense
horses, a brown one and a dappled gray, drawing a wagon along the path thirty yards
or so behind your head. In the distance, an indescribably green treeline feathers the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 508
sky. Severe clear, not a cloud in it – the hue of early autumn, though the air still tastes
• • •
All forms distinct. Hardly a black line around anything.
• • •
Barbe-à-papa – daddy’s beard = cotton candy.
Wonderful the confidence with which Gwen rode her bike yesterday over the
bumpy, gravel-strewn paths of Versailles toward Le Petit Hameau. All that cycling
down and back along the river to Stuyvesant stood her in good stead. You chained up
the bikes and the three of you roamed about the fantastical arcadian potemkin village
with its thatched roofs, farm animals and little watchtower, until you found the spot
where, on your first visit three years ago, Gwen tumbled into a half-hidden creek. Out
she came, dripping wet, camera held high and dry in her hand, forearm encased in its
purple fiberglass cast.
Truth to tell, all you want, most fervently, is to somehow continue to support
her extraordinary spirit, and though that becomes less an active practice as her
independence grows, at least you hope not to lumber her with your melancholy, your
blue-devils, your blackhole fits of rage and unconsoled displacement, which more and
more, you believe constitute a permanent feature of your inner geography – like certain
fields along the coast of Ireland where one can fall through the earth, directly into the
Again, on this voyage, Gwen finds ways to teach herself French. Last summer,
she devoured Malika BD’s. This year, she’s moved onto Mangas, intricately plotted
visual novels of adolescent romance chock full of vernacular French brought over from
the Japanese originals. Thanks to Levent, the opportunity to stay in his apartment and
experience his neighborhood – a real neighborhood too and as varied a mix in its way
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 509
as Chelsea – you’ve gained a sense of what it might be like to live in Paris day-to-day.
Added to which, this is the first time you’ve been here during the rentré, when Parisians
return from their holidays. Crowds of workers replace tourists on the metro and one
experiences a city suffused with the capillary action of its population entier. Part of the
mix, as you observed the other day in the 7th Arrondisement, some truly terrifying
families – one wants to say “prides” – of hardcore bourgeois. Certainly the most stone-
cold looking people you’ve ever seen. You wouldn’t want to be Morocco if they wanted
a piece of it.
These past two days, the weather has decided to become summer at last, and you
write this in the brightness of a day that promises to reach 28. It’d be a different story to
slog through several months of bleak, sunless winters, late dawns and 3 p.m. nightfalls.
Yes, you can see Paris as an alternative city more clearly now. You could do it, might
even get competent with the language. But now that you’ve wrapped your head a bit
more around the essential texture of living here might be, what rises up in you most
strongly is your desire to come home. To claim your right of citizenship in your native
city. What keeps you from that promised land, in exile from your birthplace? The
cause can’t be laid to the objectively unpleasant attributes of Manhattan alone:
ubiquitous post-yuppies, seething with that Bushian combination of smugness,
belligerence and greed; Hummers multiplying like paramilitary rabbits; anesthetic, real-
estate obsessed liberals, so infantile, so complicit in their failure of nerve. Let alone the
hordes of aggressively dysfunctional people one encounters nearly everywhere on the
street – and this in contrast with the suburban pseudo-friendliness of the new breed of
chain store clerks whose affect seems the product of some pharmaceutical wonder that
renders them at once incompetent and eager to please.
True, true – all true. But it’s taken this particular time in Paris to look your
relationship to New York in the eye and recognize how, over the years, you’ve taken
up, incrementally and without really being aware of it, your father’s baseline disquiet
and the drive that compelled him eventually to leave. All of which has less do with
your own experience than it does with being a good son – carrying on your filial duty
long after it could do either you or him any good. Immediate and ever-present as your
sense of not-belonging feels, is it, at bottom, yours or his?
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 510
fellowship with a good handful of the real McCoy artists and intellectuals of his day, he
was working off inputs altogether different than the ones that animate you. Did he
come to the Village in the ‘40s out of a genuine gravitation toward bohemian life, or
because, at least in part, he was charged with acting out a family myth of his own –
Jack: golden youngest sibling, steeped in private distress, yet embarrassingly gifted in
every art? In which case, what more natural a dwelling place could there be for such a
creature than this urban Parnassus? Or it may have been some combination of both.
One way or the other, you got born just down the street from Washington Square at a
moment when it lay at the heart of a particularly vital American intelligentsia cum
subculture. The White Horse, Lion’s Head, Cedar Tavern, Cookery, Marie’s Crisis (a
cabaret on the site where Thomas Paine died) – the list went on and on, all within a ten
minute walk or five minute bicycle ride.
If only. If only Jack had been a generation younger, he might have found what
he needed in the Village, maybe come out as gay or bisexual, joined an AA meeting
more congruent with his personality – in short, lived with a lighter burden of shame
and anguish. But that story is a moribund one. So the question is: how can you honor
him in spirit, weave something new with the materials of the city he bequeathed you
and leave, hanging in the closet, his heavy coat of misery? Now’s the moment, as Gwen
– beautiful and brilliant as her grandfather once was – comes into her own.
• • •
A book cover glimpsed through the window of a kiosk: DON’T SPEAK
ENGLISH: PARLEZ GLOBISH – the “O” in Globish a crudely-drawn Earth. Avec les
1500 mots pour communiquer facilement dans le monde entier. Rats, the kiosk is closed for
lunch. Make a mental note to come back when it’s open. You gotta know what those
1500 words are – the ones that’ll allow you to speak with the whole wide world.
No tough girl on duty at Le 57 this early Sunday a.m. And no customers either
apart from you. Rather a young fellow, Korean, possibly Chinese, who you imagine to
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 511
be the owner or manager. He’s only seen you once before up close, a few nights ago
when you, Katie and Gwen ate dinner there, but since then, every time you pass by of
an evening he’s there and waves as you pass. Today, as you step up and in to enter, he
comes out from behind the bar to shake your hand.
After he brings your coffee, he hangs out in the doorway, hails acquaintances as
they walk by. Over the course of a few minutes, you hear him offer salutations in
French, Spanish and Arabic. On the CD player, Tracy Chapman succeeds some
anguished Italian rocker, and as Talking About a Revolution kicks in, he turns and
boogies about the café, singing along vigorously and on key. An elderly man enters –
casts him a mystified look – stands by the bar and drinks his coffee. When the old
fellow departs, the young one follows him outside and sits at a table. Sunlight so strong
at this hour you can hardly look at your page for the glare off its whiteness. A pretty
girl passes and his eyes follow her. You can tell he wants to say something, but he
doesn’t seem to know her so he keeps clammed up. She’s got a boulangerie bag stuffed
with bread clutched to her chest, but the white peace sign on her black tee shirt is so
huge, that even partly obscured, there’s no mistaking it for any other symbol.
He stays sitting out there, swings his foot in time to Tracy’s Baby can I hold you
tonight? – raises his voice to match her pitch. You’ve never seen anyone quite so
transparently blend anxious energy, eagerness and longing into the same affect. Over
the decades you’ve internalized “be cool” – that mantra of your 60s cohort. A pang of
envy that no trace of his unguarded verve remains available to you.
He’s back behind the bar when a man, he knows, Indian or Pakistani walks in.
“Bonjour, Monsieur!” He fires up the coffee machine and in the instant his gaze shifts
to the street and he returns the wave and shouted greetings of the of a young man and
woman zipping by on a huge gray motorcycle. On the corner of Pernety and Losserand
the sanitation men have turned on the fire hydrant and begun sweeping street refuse
into the water rushing along the gutter. A man passes, walking a dog so fluffy and
white that in the intense sunlight – for the space of an eyeblink – you fancy it’s a sheep.
Along the gutter the dog moseys, in water up to its forelegs, between the curb and the
tires of parked cars, pausing now and again to lap from this impromptu and less-than-
salubrious urban stream. His owner’s not alarmed – if anything bemused. A thin, gray-
haired woman skirts round man and beast. She moves so quickly you only glimpse her
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 512
blouse printed with wildflowers, and the vividly-hued bouquet she carries in one hand.
patron remains behind the bar chatting with a new customer, one you didn’t
see come in, whose Arabic-inflected French carries with it a pervasive undertone of
complaint. During pauses in the conversation, the young man scans the streets, chews a
fingernail. Tracy sings: If not now, then when?
A few days ago, Katie found a Seamus Heaney collection in English on one of
Levent’s bookshelves. This morning you read a few poems, then his Nobel acceptance
speech – quite a poetic work in its own right, and nearly epic in its intimate reach.
Beneath the title and in type nearly large enough to compete with it, a blurb by Edward
Mendelson from the New York Times: “Eloquently confirms his status as the most
skillful and profound poet writing in English today.”
There is again, the compulsory assault of the superlative, that thumping cultural
bludgeon on the skull-base of reader and poet alike. Isn’t it enough that Heaney is both
skilled and profound, and joyously so? Must he also be the most? Absent this adjective,
would Heaney himself, or his work, stand in some way diminished? Would the Times
forfeit its power of cultural arbitrage if it refrained from defining artists and artworks
along a scale of most to least?
Or is the necessity of that “most” aimed further down the great chain of being, to
those who dwell happier in the knowledge that there are such things as penthouses, not
just top floors, even if they only glimpse them from below and are never invited up.
quantitative game. Is the best bread from Ladurée, or that neighborhood place around
the corner? Or is the bread you eat when you haven’t eaten for a week?
• • •
The poster, super-sized for display in the vaulted Metro stations, advertises the
hardware and electronics chainstore Darty. An ancient, craggy-faced shepherd, central-
casting down to his beret, sits perched atop a rock in a verdant green mountain pass
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 513
staring fixedly at his laptop screen while his flock, spread over the hillside and down in
the valley, wanders about unheeded. Pretty funny stuff. But the headline pulls the
humor of the image up short: BIENVENUE DANS UN MONDE OÙ LA
TECHNOLOGIE N’OUBLIE PERSONNE – WELCOME TO A WORLD WHERE
TECHNOLOGY FORGETS NO ONE.
• • •
On the way to Parc des Buttes Chaumont your Metro stops at Barbès-
Rochechouart. The decaying ironwork of the elevated station has recently gotten a
fresh coat of silver paint. But downstairs on the street, it looks as chaotic as three years
“How do you like your chicken?” (Le poulet, comment vous l’aimez?) asks Col.
Sanders, smiling off a poster in the Metro passageway. To which some magic-marker
wielding wag has added the rejoinder: BIEN MORT – really dead.
Actually the date is September 9 and you’re in a plane flying home via London.
No inclination to write, you’d rather nap, but you’re tired and wide awake at the same
time. Better to transcribe from notebook to computer now. If you wait until you get
back, you’ll be looking at raw words from which the sensations have entirely fled. The
texture of life is so different in the states, your Europe-self vanishes, as though he was
never there at all.
• • •
“Could Bush actually win?” Gwen asked a couple of days ago as the three of you
waited for the Metro. She sounded utterly baffled and distressed by the possibility that
such a cosmically wrong thing might occur.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 514
that many of the voting machines, now electronic, are probably rigged, but fraud may
not be necessary since Kerry is such a weak personality by comparison with Bush –
particularly on TV. You say that Bush appears to have no fear, which opens up the
opportunity to talk about the Siegfried myth. But you reiterate that you’re not sure of
the election’s outcome – that reality is too full of variables for anyone to account for.
And you reprise the old Chinese story of the ancient farmer who consistently
falls victim to misfortunes – his horse runs away, his son breaks his leg – all of which
turn out to be blessings in disguise. The horse returns with a mare, the son cannot be
drafted into to Emperor’s army, and on and on. You’re not sure this comforts her
much, but if you have anything to communicate to her besides your love, it’s that the
uncertainty of the actuality “out there” corresponds in some way to the space that must
be cultivated if one is to reserve the freedom to possess one’s own mind at all. One
never knows what associations, conscious or unconscious, will offer themselves up for
use, for any purpose between amusement and survival.
Kerry made, it seems, an immense mistake by focusing attention on his Vietnam
performance as a defining mark of his candidacy. Not that his personal bravery or
leadership skills were necessarily hyped or falsified. Rather the problem lies in
reminding Americans that there was ever anyplace called Viet Nam, and worse, that
they had any part in a war there.
For many people, the subject of Vietnam is irreconcilable with any sense of well-
being and this part of our history must be kept crammed resolutely in the bag labeled
don’t go there. Had Kerry any real politics to offer, that would change everything – he
wouldn’t have to rely on the past, he could speak of a future. This would constitute a
revolution of sorts. Lacking substance, he must hold out, in response to Bush’s saber
rattling, the prospect of cheap gas and carefree living, at no cost whatever to the
American consumer. His only viable campaign strategy is thus to venture even deeper
into fantasy than his opponent.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 515
“anyone but Bush” camp, could not, and still cannot grasp that the Democratic party
game was definitively up twelve years ago when Clinton’s appropriated the Republican
agenda in order to win. It’s awful to say, but the first thing is to forget about winning
the election. The Democrats simply have to be abandoned in favor of building, from the
ground up, a strong, unapologetic socialist party which has the capacity to challenge
the whole system of corporate control. You cannot, as Kerry is attempting to do, claim
political power by proposing that you’re a marginally nicer guy than the monster
you’re running against. Faced with such a choice, folks will opt for the alpha-dog every
Certainly the ex-radicals who support Kerry ought to know better and stop
weeping in their beer. Fear: the great dumber down.
Sad, sad, stupid and sad.
But when has an empire had the wisdom to rescale its self-perception, renounce
its arbitrary power, and plant its soles back on earth?
• • •
A journalist from a Latin American paper based in San Salvador emails
requesting an interview. You respond by sending your French cell phone number.
Nearly three years on, and it isn’t the same seizing up of the heart you’ve felt as
the last two anniversaries drew closer – more a warm, almost hot tickle that spirals up
from the pit of your stomach to your throat like the twirling of a mildly dyspeptic
internal barber pole.
• • •
Last day in Paris. Over the course of the afternoon, furious at having to do an
interview at all, and frustrated by a series of miscues in contacting the journalist, your
mood worsens to the point where you are so snarlingly angry and disconcerted you
scarcely notice when Katie points out a beautiful tie on the rue de Rennes. You enter
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 516
the shop, zombie-like, barely aware of your surroundings and only when the critical
mass of gorgeous fabrics seizes your attention by main force are you able to focus at all.
A half hour later you emerge onto the street bearing a shopping bag from
NODUS masculin latin which contains a shirt, two ties and a belt. The saleswoman –
young and unassumingly beautiful – gave you an apparently spontaneous discount and
offered, as she accompanied you to the door, the deadpan observation that you speak
French very well. In view of the time she spent making certain that each item chosen
was the right one, you suspect that she may actually have meant this. Not true though.
You do, however, try to accurately pronounce your limited French. Still, it’s a great
note to ride back into Dodge on.
September 8 – Eurostar between Paris & London – Late Afternoon
On your way to the dining car for a Duvel, your last Belgian ale on the continent,
you pass a young man working fixedly at his laptop. When you return, he is standing
up stretching and as you pass you catch a whiff of his unbelievably ripe scent – hasn’t
bathed in days. What world is he living in?
The Duvel tastes heavenly with your sandwich, an amalgamation of three
leftover cheeses stuffed into a baguette from one of the first-rate boulangeries of
Montparnasse. You offer some mirabelles to the couple, more or less your age, sitting
across the aisle. They proffer Portuguese cookies, and along with Katie and Gwen, you
fall into conversation. Richard and Barbara Sweet they turn out to be, of Waterloo,
returning from a week in Paris. A wide-ranging talk ensues in which you discover that
Richard is now a working musician, a pianist having been, in his younger days, active
in the Labor Party. He recalls, in the ‘70s, mixing at several functions with an ambitious
young fellow, then known as Anthony Blair.
As the train emerges on the English side, Richard asks if you have you ever
heard of Francis Kilvert. No, the name doesn’t ring a bell. Well, you are the spitting
image of him, isn’t he, Barbara? Yes, it seems, you are. Who is Francis Kilvert? Was. A
Victorian parson, preacher of some renown in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, and a
prolific diarist. Ah, there you go, the road not taken. If you hadn’t let your scruples
about being an atheist stand in your way, you could have had an easy gig for life –
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 517
spend your latter days dozing pleasantly in a garden while someone gently whispers
“More tea, Vicar?”
Talk turns to Wales. Richard was born in Cardiff and he spoke of singing in
choir there as a child – how the voices of the basses, nearly Russian in their fullness,
would create what he called hwyl – an all-encompassing emotive atmosphere, a pure,
airport. A man answers. “The car,” he says “is on the way.” And adds in the lilting
tones of the subcontinent: “It will be a silver colored car, sir.”
The driver is a tall fellow, Pakistani as it turns out. He drives smoothly and
sedately through the residential neighborhoods, narrating what he knows of their
character and demographics. Asks if you went to Kew Gardens, and when you reply
no, shakes his head in genuine disappointment. Clearly it is a place for which he holds
a deep appreciation. There is a park, he says, near Putney where “deer are open,
bunnies open. You buy a bag of food and hold out in your hand – ten deer come,
maybe fourteen.” Something for the next trip, Kew Gardens, and more of the West End.
And Southwark Cathedral. Has he been to New York? No, but he has an uncle there,
and another in New Jersey.
You cross the Thames and join up with the A4. Out the window, in the middle
distance, a battery of highrise apartment buildings – atypical for England – quite
modern, obviously abandoned. “Those used to be beautiful flats,” says the driver. He
points out a half dozen other nearly new buildings, all large scale, flats and offices alike,
all desolate, huge holes punched through the windows. “After September 11, they said
terrorists would kill all. So nobody will live, nobody work.” You’re incredulous. Who
said these would be targets? “Government,” he replies, “so everyone afraid to go.”
You drive in silence for a few minutes. He cuts effortlessly across three lanes
into the Heathrow exit, then turns toward you, asks what the Americans thought after
9/11. Did they ask why? You say you don’t think so, not for very long anyway. What
do you know about your driver? Only that he appears to have a cold or sinus
condition, that he’s said he lives in Wandsworth, has two children living in Germany
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 518
with his ex-wife. Also that he considers himself educated and dislikes the “religious
people” who “go like horses” – he holds his hand against his temple to indicate blinders
– “without seeing outside, only narrow.” That he thinks the war in Iraq is about oil and
greed. He’s a good driver and seems a decent man, so when you pull over at Terminal
3, you shake his hand and tell him your name, and hear that his is Jahn.
He helps you unload your bags. “Safe driving,” you call as he gets into the car.
It still looks odd to see a driver enter on what, for you, remains the passenger side.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 519
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