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- September 13 – Chelsea Post Office – Early Afternoon
- September 17 – Shifty-shift Street Dyslexington Avenue – Early Afternoon
- September 19 – Midmorning
- September 20 – Early morning
- September 21 – Late Morning
The Sanitation sweeper with JOHNSTON stenciled on the front rumbles by
stirring up the dust with its great wire brushes. The woman driving it turns her
implacable, chiseled face in your direction and you wave. She flashes the fingers of her
right hand open in reply, but keeps her palm steady on the wheel.
Katie’s out of bed just ahead of you, calls your attention to the most lambent
possible dawn. The sky in the west awash in cast color. To the south, a spray of copper
embers as the sun reflects off the windows of the lower Manhattan towers.
• • •
Le G. encore. Clanks of steel and bangs of lumber pull you out of News from
Nowhere. Across Ninth Avenue, over the façade of a modest four story building, four
men are constructing a scaffold. The building’s vacant storefront used to house
Something Else, the strange little shop with wildly varying prices on its ornaments,
paperweights and jewelry, where, for the birthday after her accident, you and Gwen
bought Katie a beautiful pendant of rutilated quartz.
Eric B. arrives on his bicycle – first time you’ve seen one another these five
weeks. He’s had the flu hence been up early, like you with your jet lag, and
consequently saw the daybreak from downtown. You talk too, about the sky, how it’s
been changing lately. Remarkable colors frame the day, more wild and vivid than you
remember in all your years. Cloudbanks too, like those out west in the big sky country,
or over Venice in life and in the paintings. From your south-facing windows there
seems, at times, to be two distinct weather systems running roughly west-east. One for
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 520
the lower end of Manhattan and the upper bay, and another, further away, over Staten
Island and out to sea.
Contrails too, in plenitude, gridding the space up there. A clear blue morning
may yield a sky that looks weirdly grayish and feathery by afternoon. Sometimes at
dusk, just after dawn, and occasionally in midday, a mass of clouds that look somehow
nuclear, or the way one imagines the roiling sky in the moments before the after-storm.
• • •
To Jones Beach as has become your tradition on this day. Straightaway Gwen
takes out the big blue plastic shovel and begins to dig a hole in the sand, something she
saw a teenage boy do last year until only his head was visible.
You lie in the sun a bit, then walk out into the surf for pummeling by the still-
warm waves. Four military choppers fly in formation parallel to the shore and the
trope comes unbidden: I love the smell of napalm…
You dry off, then relieve Gwen in digging while she spreads smooth the sand
you heap around the hole’s edges. You must be making progress because soon your
hair begins to brush the side of the pit when you bend to shovel. Gwen wants to go to
the concession stand. Give her leave. Take a break yourself – up to your waist. A
dozen yards off, a slender young woman sits up amidst her cohort of prone and supine
bronzers. Head motionless, face turned slightly upward and toward the sun, she moves
first one hand and now the other, effecting subtle variations of distance and angle
between them. There’s a studied quality to her gestures and you laugh aloud when,
after a few moments, you realize that she’s not performing an arcane solar rite, but
rather attempting to read the display on her cellphone, gone blank in the midday glare.
Gwen returns with a frozen lemonade and a story: a mother and her little girl
were walking toward the boardwalk when right before the steps, the girl flopped down
in the sand and refused to budge, saying “I’m a turtle.”
The mother said: “We need to go now, turtle. What’s the magic word? Is it
turtle, turtle, turtle? Is it ‘please’?” The girl stayed prone. “Is it mommy has to go to
the bathroom really badly now? Is it ‘open sesame’? Turtle remained unmoved and
unmoving. Finally: “Is it mommy loves turtle very much?” At which the little girl
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 521
jumped up and the two of them trotted up the steps. Gwen much impressed by the
From back on the blanket next to Katie you watch as Gwen labors on in the shade
of the beach umbrella she’s planted in the sand next to her hole. The afternoon passes.
You take a long walk down the beach. As you return you discover that Gwen’s dug
herself in up to her shoulders. She hails you with the blue shovel. When you reach her,
you find she’s excavated the entirety of an ancient, soggy tabloid newspaper that’s
amalgamated into something that looks very like a slab of raw fish, but despite its
clamminess, tears apart like something very overcooked. When she bends down to
scoop out a shovelful, she disappears altogether.
Sit down and face the sea. Over the waves and gulls, Gwen’s voice drifts, jazzily
inflected – the tune and lyrics her own: “I’m stuck in a hole, I don’t know how to get
out. I need my daddy, but I can’t disturb him – he’s busy writing…”
You stand up. She’s above her head. Squat down, grasp her wrists and haul her
out. Jump in and take one more shift at shifting sand. Gwen wants to go deeper still.
Until she strikes water.
• • •
Driving west toward Manhattan on the Northern State a sunset as astonishing as
the dawn – marbelized blues and magentas visible between striations of high clouds,
while in the relative foreground a herd of misshapen cumulus, backlit red-amber
stampede south to north. Suddenly brake lights proliferate in the thick traffic and as
the road curves they evaporate into the immense fireball of the setting sun. You pulse
the brakes and hope to stop before you hit the car in front of you since there’s no
reckoning where it is in the all-obliterating glow. Stop. You feel nothing, hear nothing
but the engine. Amazingly, no one rearends you. Inch ahead until the brake lights
ahead emerge out of the orange wash. Slowly round the curve until the trees along the
parkway sweep the saturation behind them.
You make it home in one piece, look out the living room window. 8:04 p.m. and
they’ve turned on those bloody stupid columns of light again, diffuse and vaguely blue
against the black now-hazy sky. As if. Added to which, when you’re not watching the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 522
beams directly, but see them with your peripheral vision, if you shift your eyes
suddenly, there’s the bizarre illusion that they are sweeping across the heavens, or,
more alarming still, toppling over. Each time this happens, you fall for it and have to
look quickly to check. Of course they haven’t moved an iota.
Is it your writing that improves? Someone could say, but it surely isn’t you. Yet
a corner’s been turned. Your enmeshment with your words crosses a threshold from
grudging to loving. Uncertain as ever of outcomes. Yet the book reaches out to
embrace you at last.
As you wait on queue, you enter the dates for your next round of writing
workshop into your agenda and notice that this time Election Day coincides with the
Day of the Dead. Oy.
It’s been grating on you, pearl-like, that some weeks back, a friend, upper-middle
class and deeply liberal in her politics, called you cynical for not embracing Kerry as an
alternative to Bush. Though not in the sense she meant, you’d gladly cop to the
attributes of the old-school cynic: doggedness, an emphasis on personal virtue, refusal
to accept authority at face value – or sugar-coat the ethically unacceptable for
At the time, your friend implied that it would be your fault if Bush wins. But the
accusation seems silly now. The way it’s lining up, Bush could take the election by such
a wide margin that any votes Nader might divert from Kerry would be irrelevant to the
outcome. The Republicans are poised to steal the show in a far more sophisticated way
than they did in 2000, but they may not have to go that route this time.
Your turn. Time to buy some stamps. Holy cow, all the choices: Buckminster
Fuller, James Baldwin, John Wayne – Paul Robeson yet. Go for the Snowy Egret. Truly,
these must be the most pleasant, efficient postal clerks in Christendom. Is it something
in the water? As you’re leaving, it pops into your head. Nowadays a cynic is regarded
as someone who sees only the most venal motivations behind every action, who takes it
for granted that all human relations are corrupted. In which case your friend, not you is
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 523
the cynic. She, like so many others, has crossed over – without ever having to engage in
active struggle – from political naivety to a contemptuous dismissal of anyone who
doesn’t share their own miscarried, or worse yet, self-aborted wishes.
• • •
Reading away, you come to a reference to The Natural History of Iceland, written
in 1758, in which chapter #24, Concerning Snakes, consists of one sentence: “No snakes
of any kind are to be met with throughout the whole island.”
Your Mac, when it receives an email makes a noise like a drop in a very resonant
bucket. Open it up. Ah, the latest iteration of a pathetic appeal making the web rounds.
This version, endorsed by a host of Nader 2000 supporters, repudiates Ralph and begs
folks to vote for Kerry. The signatories includes the likes of Tim Robbins, Susan
Sarandon, Phil Donahue and Cornell West. Sad creatures these luminaries, howsoever
brilliant, who have elected to portray their failure of courage and imagination as a call
to social responsibility. Bit of a surprise to see Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky on
the list, though on second thought it makes sense given their almost numbing level of
pessimism. Fear makes people stupid. And panic leads to digging a new level of
denial. They’re in deeper then Gwen at the beach. Eventually, they’ll reach China.
And the question is, will Nader, for his part, come out strong in October and use
his position to indict the entire framework of authority?
What was the slogan of Mao’s you used to ridicule? – Fail again, fight again.
These days, when you hear the word Kerry, you reach for your Buber: The true history of
man is not composed of sterile victories, but of fruitful defeats. A hopeless minority fighting an
anti-human oppressor does not experience what we are used to call success; it “fails,” but
succumbing, it may announce and prepare a great turn.
And there’s something more. If you tell yourself you’ve got no power, you’ve
got no power, no matter how strong you are.
• • •
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 524
Midmorning and you lean on your bicycle talking with Eric B. down at the
junction of Desbrosses street and the riverside bike path. He proposes that, in a
nutshell, Bush’s election would be the best thing that could happen in terms of bringing
the crisis to a head. You, you’re not sure. You thought after 9/11: Ah, now we’ll look
at all the stuff that’s been piling up under the rug since Vietnam. But we didn’t. Why
should a nation so politically moribund suddenly galvanize were Bush to remain in
office, and why not? – declare himself President for Life? It’s a theory, and only a
theory, as cultures globalize, they may become congenitally incapable of mounting any
sort of real challenge to the powers that rule them. The problem isn’t confined to the
U.S. by any means. The populations of Russia and India, for example, seem unable to
respond to the terrors inflicted on them by their leaders. The gene for self-defense
against abusive government may have been permanently neutralized.
Overhead, an army Chinook po-pocks upriver, not olive in the early fall glare,
but dark gray. It looks, for all the world, like a flying galleon, propellers sprouting from
its fore and sterncastles in place of masts. They carry things, these choppers. A
Humvee or two. Maybe even a Bradley. That’s just what Penn South’s missing: a
Bradley on the lawn standing guard by the cherry tree they planted the day JFK
dedicated the place. Maybe the Chinook is bringing it to us. If not today, then when?
• • •
A new mantra for the public address to blast while you’re cooling your heels
waiting for a train:
subway. Please do not give to lawbreakers. Give to charities that help people in need.
This repeated several times in the absence of a train on which to potentially
collude with a panhandler in perpetrating a criminal act. But look now, at last, lights at
the end of the tunnel.
• • •
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 525
begins a few hours from now, a vast room will fill up with young women whose task it
is to embroider, in frilly letters, the words GIRL ATTITUDE – Deal With It – or another
slogan to similar effect, on a endless mountain of teeshirts, just like the one in the
window of the wholesale store on 27th Street & Broadway.
• • •
Curiouser and curiouser. In Florida, the Democratic party challenges the
legitimacy of Nader’s candidacy, and a state judge agrees, throws him off the ballot.
The state Attorney General, a Jeb Bush appointee, appeals the decision. You’ve lived
through some strange political spectacles, but nothing as flat-out weird as this one:
Democrats – disenfranchised in the last go-round – attempting to cut democracy off at
the knees. A Republican avatar of corruption gallops, hurricane-like, to the rescue.
Forget China – the hole we’re digging – no bottom.
Has the English language, at least as spoken here, ceased to be capable of
expressing a sense of loss?
• • •
Rain, as they say, heavy at times. This evening the top quarter of the Empire
State, bathed in bright white floodlights truly out of Metropolis, shrouded in protean
clouds that look like a universe unfolding in timelapse. The whine of jet turbines.
You’re looking at the building, out the waterspattered window facing northeast, there
in all its immensity and for a couple of beats you’re certain the plane, unseen, will burst
against it. But the clouds roil on, the leviathan stands imperturbe, and the sirens, the
blasting horns up Eighth Avenue turn west instead, heading to a fire somewhere else.
The vacant building across the street now boasts a completed scaffold shrouded
in translucent black mesh, which if it were transferred to stockings, with a seam
running up the back would read somewhere between formal and kinky. The leaves of
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 526
the two trees that overlap the building stand out vividly against the dark backcloth.
They are classic New York trees, readily identifiable from across the Avenue: at the
right, a ginkgo in questionable health, its leaf ends already browning. Of middle
height this ginkgo, yet like many of its city fellows, it’s never outgrown an awkward
adolescent look – one waits in vain for it to fill out. The other tree’s a honey locust,
bushier and a bit more symmetrical, its pods getting ready to drop.
Curbside the dumpster has already appeared – the phone number of its
purveyor stenciled in huge white figures against the rusty blue – and a good sized
dumpster it is, which pretty well confirms the intent to gut the building. Nor was time
wasted in plastering the freshly painted plywood hoardings with posters, all save the
spot reserved for the author of this construction, which we now learn is Spring
Scaffolding Inc. of Long Island City.
A woman walking a dog passes by, second time round the block at least. Don’t
recognize her from the neighborhood. She’s thin, with a small head, and when she
pauses to yawn, her mouth opens so wide you’ve a momentary apprehension that her
jaws will invert and she’ll swallow herself. Yipes, you’re losing your grip.
Thus begins a new year, 5765 by Jewish reckoning. Which seems a propitious
time to rename the city. Adamically. Not tout court necessarily, but little by little as the
spirit moves us. One could use names similar to the old ones, but turned to a new aural
angle, so they strike the ear afresh, jauntily, yet carrying some fundamental and
perhaps esoteric meaning with them. In the spirit of Darryl/Natasha, your old next
door neighbor at the Chelsea Hotel, who used talk about getting calls from The Ram-it-
in, or How Hard’s Johnson’s. The new tags don’t have to be scatological though. And
anyone can join the game – no reason for something to have only one name – we’ll all
know what’s being talked about.
Start, say, with some of mid-Manhattan’s urban icons: Tom’s Square (Dime
Spare?) and Sensual Park. Lingam Center for the Contorting Arts. The prime meridian
could become either Flip, Fish, Filch, or if the BIDs go out of bidness, Filth Avenue. Or
Fitch, if one wanted to give props to the steamboat father. Which would only be fair
given the multiple placenames memorializing Robert Fulton who, like a true New
Yorker, figured out how to profit from the steamboat after Fitch died. In any case,
Finch Avenue would intersect with Bawdway at the Fatfryin’ Building. Moving
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 527
beastward: Mastodon, Medicine or Mad-as-Sin, then Bark, and there’s a nice ring to
Lexicon Avenue, but Dyslexington would suit the contrarians better. Next come Bird,
Beckoned and Wurst Avenues (the latter recalling to the palate the glory days of echt-
Yorkville) finishing off at Pork Avenue, which, south of the Roswell Island Tram
becomes Glutton Place. Or Mutton. Take a ferry across the Yeast River to Wrong Island
City. Or one from the Flattery to Alice Island. Spin the cube at Asked Her Place. On
the wrest side, Sick, Heaven, Ape, Knife, Tent (or Tense, or Temp), then Leavened
Avenues fly by before you skid onto the Wet Side Highway.
Crosswise now: Banal Street becomes the dividing line between Shlomo and
Trifecta and further soused, near Waltz Street one would find the skyscraper that once
housed the Chaste Bank. Visible from all these newly endowed places, and holding
court above them all, the soaring, preeminent city icon: the Umpire, or – to
commemorate the night in 1945 a B-25 crashed into it – the Empyre, or On-fire State
Building. From the top of which there’s a great view of Bland Central at Tawdry-
Beckoned and Bark, whence trains run to points north like Cro-Magnon, Wastechester,
or Newt Haven.
All this change and newness absent any displacement – without shifting a brick,
a cobblestone, a mote of dust. An urban renewal of the mind. No need, as Kenneth
Koch put it: To shuffle little streets like cards. And deal them out as boulevards. Not even a
leaf need fall. But we’d feel the difference.
Aftermath of a cab having jumped the curb and plowed into a combined check-
cashing and jewelry store. Trashed front end of car and stove-in storefront, copious
quantities of glass and a small mountain of plastic display stands heaped near what had
been the doorway. No EMS vans, denks Gott. Pocketful o’ miracles. You arrived too
late to find out whether, in the hectic moments after the cab came calling, the trinkets
were retrieved by the owners or opportunistic passersby, or some combination of the
But the trajectory of the car is a real puzzle given that a bank of public telephones
and a bus stop sign pole on the sidewalk near the curb and directly in front of the shop
are still standing undamaged. So the taxi, traveling downtown, must have banked in at
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 528
a nearly perpendicular angle. As the wreck of the cab is towed away, you register the
illuminated advertisement mounted on its roof: NY Flashdancers: Gentlemen’s Club and
Cabaret. Taped to a portion of crumpled storefront wall, protected perhaps by the now-
ruined standpipe, a surviving sign: ALL PEARL EARRINGS $10.
• • •
On the grass of the Park Avenue meridian, on either side of 53rd Street, a large
cor-ten steel sculpture that looks, for all the world, like an outsized, busted spring.
You’ve been at Kelly’s getting needles stuck in you. Lying there while your
energy gets shifted around. Most of the time acupuncture puts you in a deep trance, so
that even though you’re competent to write a check afterward and make a date for five
weeks hence, you’re not ready for the world outside. So you pause part way to the
subway and sit on the ledge of the planter in the Lever House courtyard where a
discrete little sign says not to sit. You can’t imagine what the harm inheres in sitting
there, but while you do, your mind conjures up all sorts of absurdities in fast
succession: perhaps the taxi driver was heading into the store to cash a check and
forgot the detail about first stopping his car. Perhaps the Democrats, the really
progressive ones at any rate, are like Odysseus, binding themselves to the mast so the
Siren song of Nader cannot tempt them to shipwreck. In truth the whole situation is
out of myth: Kerry/Bush as Scylla and Charybdis – take your choice, unless you’ve the
nerve to sail straight through.
Not the flash but the thunder, like a mountainous crumbling, wakes you. It takes
a second to associate the sound with the elements and not some Baghdad come home to
roost. Full rain whiteout this a.m., a little touch of Ivan from the Caribs. Taxis turning
onto 24th street send up great sheets of water, even when they take the corner slow.
Peculiar play of the atmosphere, one you recall happening years ago, or was it déja vu?
Not mist, but a series of distinct, small clouds sailing fast between your building and
the one to the south. They gallop through at around sixteen stories, forty feet below
you, drawn across Eighth Avenue to disperse somewhere to the east.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 529
Clear and brisk. First true fall morning. Not yet the equinox, but a palpable
sense of pendulum swing, another cycle coming into play.
Back from the café, you wait in the lobby for the elevator. When it reaches
Ground, the door opens and a beautiful young woman walks out wearing a long
flowing black and white patterned dress and blue floatie sandals. It takes you a beat,
maybe two, to recognize Gwen. She’s come downstairs to look through the paper
recycling bin for collage material. You give her a hug, kiss the top of her head – which
you can still reach – and back your bicycle into the elevator. Holy cow, she must’ve
grown half an inch overnight.
All the way up to the twentieth floor, a host of associations scramble to the top of
the heap: The Pearl, where the poet dreams his infant daughter appears as a full-grown
woman, an envoy from the Heavenly Jerusalem. 14th Century. Old stuff but with a
ring to it. You once read or someone told you that Schiller said that what’s seen as
beauty here comes to us later as truth. Not fifteen minutes ago you were reading News
From Nowhere, where the narrator is guided through the future by a fellow who, it’s
strongly implied is his descendant. Freaky stuff, pops. Let’s do the time warp again.
One by one you hear little tales from friends who were here during the
convention. At Le G., Kimsey tells you about the morning half the place was full of
police, the other half of protestors. “Fortunately everyone was cool.” Then a tone of
something like irony slips into her normally even-toned voice. The cops, she says, all
ate big breakfasts and left large tips, whereas “sixty protestors would sit there and share
Tony, who lives and works on the top floor of a loft on 26th street said he was
nearly driven crazy by the incessant sound of choppers.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 530
Gomelsky’s rock rehearsal space, says that some delegates went to eat on the Chelsea
Piers, prompting the deployment of a small flotilla of gunboats along the Hudson, to
protect them, weapons aimed at the shoreline.
From several people you hear that Eighth Avenue was closed to traffic north of
23rd Street, many businesses along the street shut down too. How weirdly quiet these
blocks must have been. Sharpshooters stationed on the roof of your building.
From Eric B. you learn that the dramatic moment of the big march – half a
million or more – came when someone set the giant dragon float alight just in front of
Madison Square Garden. The flames soared stories high, no putting it out, people just
moved back into the density, formed a permeter around the falling bits and watched it
September 20 – Early morning
Vivid dream impressions. Some deeply sensual episode is supplanted by a
buzzy kind of anxiety. In the earlier stage, for which the visuals have altogether
vanished, you’re pretty sure you were dreaming as a woman. In the latter part you
shaded into a more immediately recognizable self, if not explicitly male. An image here
of the dreamer’s field of view: either he’s forgotten to pack, or put off until too late the
gathering of belongings strewn about a room he must imminently leave. There’s the
open valise on his bed, and the known impossibility of filling it in time. Something of
the fall from grace in this. As a female, the dreamer sensed she was welcome in this
house, had a role to play, found pleasure there. What happened over the course of the
things to carry the dreamer to the brink of expulsion?
You could sit all morning pondering this. One sock on, one sock halfway on.
Shoes. Bike. Lock the door behind you. Off to the café.
• • •
Something off, fractured, about the whole texture of the morning – perhaps
residue carried over from the dream state. You talk amiably with your mates, but
you’re disconcerted and try not to show it. Manhattan madness – chock full of must-
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 531
do’s – the sort of day you dread, the sensation of being overwhelmed by things you
might have enjoyed if not so densely clustered, yet here they are in the order you
yourself set up. A dozen chores and appointments, a flightpath like a bee’s – alighting
then moving on. And it’s all booked to the minute, no wiggle-room in between.
Looked at another way, Monday as a Chinese puzzle.
Beneath your windshield wiper two communiqués, one from the City, the other
from the city. Look first at the parking ticket. Goddam. What for? – you’re in a legal
space. Ah, it says your inspection expired two days ago. Check the sticker. They’re
right, it did. Ouch. Sixty-five bucks. That’s what you get for living in car denial. Still a
ticket’s just a ticket – nothing more to tell you.
The second message comes printed on a small sheet of light green paper, folded
in half and trimmed raggedly across one side. Amazing, it’s been here less than a day,
yet the top flap has already got a fine dusting of soot. Paper feels damp from the recent
rain. For a moment you stand there, all sensory information washing over you at equal
value. But when you marshal your resources to unfold the little green sheet and read
what’s written inside, it seems to confirm that at some point, when you weren’t paying
attention, what passes for reality crossed an invisible nano-Rubicon and is now, with an
almost encouraging gesture, beckoning you join it on the other shore:
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