September 29 – Le G. – Morning
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|September 29 – Le G. – Morning
In the midst of your labors when a couple of parents you recognize from PS 11
show up and sit down at the banquette accompanied by one of their daughters. Why
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 543
isn’t she in school? Mom explains she’s “playing hooky” in order to be videotaped by
one of the network news shows. You nod as if you’re taking it all in but her words
blow by. Uncomfortable this feeling you get sometimes of not being entirely here, but
nowhere else either.
They’re nice folk, middle-to-upper middle or higher, hard to tell. You get a sense
of real money somewhere in the dynastic pool. Educated and well read. Mom hails
from Summit, NJ, that utopia of the semi-pastoral bourgeoisie. You recall that this past
spring they threw a fundraising bash for Kerry. This morning, they divide the Times
and devote themselves to their respective sections between genteel sips of café au lait.
Silence reigns until Mom looks up, speaks sharply to her daughter. “Don’t torture your
croissant.” You can almost hear it scream.
Post. Tiny at the bottom of p. 17: Debra Ann DiMartino, 36, has been
added to the list of confirmed dead in the World Trade Center attacks.
The couple and their daughter depart. Belatedly you remember their names.
Damn, you’re just hopeless with that. Repeat them over in your head to cement them
for the next time you meet. Reach over for the A section of the Times they’ve left
behind. Turn to the op-ed. Hmmm. Gore’s pointers to Kerry on how to debate Bush.
Like the French offering strategic advice to the Americans on how to whip the
Vietnamese. It’s a feeble piece, but the last sentence takes the cake: “Comparing these
(Bush’s) grandiose promises to his failed record, it’s enough to make anyone want to,
And therein lies a tale. You flash on the fall of Granada, the completion of the
Catholic reconquesta and of vanquished Boabdil as he departed for North Africa, never
to return. Reaching the heights of what was afterward called la cuesta de las Lágrimas,
the last Caliph of Spain paused to look back. There, across the valley, centuries before
Washington Irving’s setting sun cast its “melancholy effulgence on the ruddy towers of
the Alhambra,” Boabdil sighed his legendary sigh, and moved on. That’s all there is
Isabela, there isn’t any Moor.
• • •
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 544
Allerton. You can’t see her face, it’s hidden by the side of the booth, but her voice
carries over the roar of traffic so forcefully aggrieved it’s like a gust of wind: Yeah, well
if someone broke into your place and stole your shit, you wouldn’t be such a happy fuckin’
• • •
Afternoon. A short nap after which you awaken with the name Vladimir
Yusupidi reverberating in your head. What triggered that? First time you’ve thought
of Vladimir in years. And how long since you saw him? A quarter century or more?
Back in the deep, dark mid-‘70s, the closest thing you had to a steady job was
driving a cab and the outfit you worked for most often was Chase, a fleet of maybe sixty
cars on 47th Street between 11th and the river, near where the Intrepid’s moored now.
A few drivers had regularly assigned cars, but these were old-school guys out of the
“follow that cab!” era. For you and most of your fellow night shifters, this was shape-
up work. You’d slide your license – your “picture” in the parlance – through a bank
teller-like slot, then hang around while returning cabs were gassed up, hoping you’d
gotten there early enough, or that the dispatcher – an indescribable ogre – recognized
the fact that you’d booked well for the garage last time they’d sent you out. Which
meant you weren’t stealing as much – doing trips off the meter – as some of the other
guys. Invariably, as you were on the brink of giving up and trading penury against a
night’s freedom, you’d hear “DAH-TON!” squawked over the PA. Thence return to the
window and retrieve your picture, along with a trip sheet on which to record your
mileage and the pick-ups and destinations for your fares for that night.
These were the loophole years, when cheap apartments, though scarcer than
hen’s teeth could still be had in Manhattan, and artsy, often proto-new age folks did all
kinds of funky jobs to get by. Including drive cabs. If one took taxis regularly in those
days, and they were much more the luxury commodity than they are now, one could
meet a fair slice of city’s cultural capital: dancers, painters, musicians – most famously
Philip Glass. But this was also the era immediately post-fiscal crisis, when robbing
cabbies at gunpoint turned into a cottage industry for the city’s lumpen. Three yellow
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 545
cab drivers were shot in one week, two fatally. The guy from your garage – you only
knew him vaguely – survived several bullet wounds, but you never saw him again.
The body counts were even higher for car service drivers, because they routinely served
the communities most yellow cabs avoided, partly out of racism, partly from survival
Among the luminaries of the Chase shape-up pool was a fellow named Ramin,
scion of an aristocratic Georgian family and a brilliant autodidact who’d grown up in
the U.S. Naturally, you bonded, and the interminable wait on the bench for a car
turned into something like a precursor – redolent of gas fumes, rather than garlic or
burning cheese – of Le G. Particularly so when Vladimir turned up and expanded your
dyad into a threesome. At once the most gregarious and needy of several just-off-the-
boat Russians, who, by the vagaries of demographics, arrived in a cluster, Vladimir
became, over time, for you and Ramin, a kind of shared Hyman Kaplan – though on
another level, you recognized him as a kindred spirit. Both of you made yourselves
available to the task of buoying Vladimir over the reefs and shoals of whatever odd
variant of English is spoken in New York. Vladimir’s questions also got you to pay a bit
more attention to the nuances of a language whose facile use you took for granted.
What, he once asked, was the difference between possibly (pahssably) and probably
(prahbably)? You’d never thought about it until then.
And then there were the rough customs of the Americans to deal with, for
despite purportedly hailing from Moscow, Vladimir was a tender soul. “Why he say
me mazerfacker?” Vladdy asked once after an altercation with another cab driver had
spoiled his night. Years later, when you saw Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law the set-up
seemed oddly familiar, and then it clicked – you’d lived a variant of that movie, just as
you had Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. There were, indeed, folks just as crazy as Travis Bickle
pushing cabs around New York back in the day.
A month or so after you met Vladimir, you and Ramin visited him in his
Washington Heights digs. He poured Black Label. Hanging from a nail on the living
room wall, a Playboy calendar. Already he’d grasped the basics of his America.
Vladdy said he was Jewish, a claim you never entirely bought. Not that you
knew many Soviet Jews – the only Soviet citizens then arriving in New York in any
numbers, and often via Israel. But something about him just didn’t ring homeboy.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 546
You’ll never know for sure and it doesn’t really matter, aside from the irony of someone
passing themselves off as Jewish to gain an advantage.
Irregardless – as certain woiking-poisons used to say when putting on airs – the
Vladdy era distills down to one particular moment. And this in your anomie-filled pre-
Katie late twenties, when you genuinely held little, your own life included, of any great
worth. One night around eleven, the three of you arrived, from different directions, at
the same corner – 86th and Second at exactly the same time. On top of which the three
of you were all driving “light” – meaning without passengers – and each honked as he
recognized first one, then the other of the trio and you pulled over to marvel at the
mildness of the spring air and the improbability of your convergence. Kosmic taxi
driver synchronicity. This was before Ramin got weird and you fell out – before
Vladdy brought his “wife” over from Russia.
Maybe five years later, making a delivery for your graphic design studio, you
hailed a taxi, got in and then saw his picture on the partition – he’d put on weight, but
retained those fine, sweet, almost feminine features – and then he recognized you and
you weren’t driving any more, but he was, and had bought his own medallion, hence
worked for a bank and not the fleet anymore. Nor would he take your money at the
end of the ride, no matter how you pressed him, which you probably shouldn’t have.
But there it is. Worth wondering where, in this city, or some other universe Vladimir
Yusupidi could possibly be orbiting now.
Official cost of Larry Silverstein’s new 7 World Trade Center to date: one life, a
carpenter who fell down an elevator shaft. Twenty-eight years old. His name withheld
for the present.
The oil, the oil. Neither Kerry nor Bush wanted any of that tar baby last night.
Nor do Americans in our great pit of denial. Unhappily, when the collapse comes,
economics will change awareness faster than awareness will change economics.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 547
A merry prank at the café: Tony and John show up early to find – surprise! –
Table 4 vacant. Assuming you’ll arrive momentarily, they settle in at Tables 5 and 6.
Fact is, you’d woken up at 7:30, realized you’d probably blown any chance of getting
there in time to claim your accustomed spot and decided this was a good morning to
sleep in. Back at the café, it gets to be 8:15 and a trickle of weekend customers begins to
come in. Desirous of of preventing your putative space being usurped by an auslander,
John and Tony resort to improvisation. Finding a small piece of cardboard lying close
to hand, they lean it against the sugar bowl on Table 4. Though the card is blank, to
people coming in and scanning the room from the doorway, must read as a “reserved”
sign, for when you finally walk in at 9:15, your table awaits – the only vacant one in the
room. John and Tony look for all the world like two eight year olds who’ve gotten
away with a five-finger discount from the candy store – they’re red-faced with delight.
No one, says John, even approached – they all headed for other parts of the room.
You’ve never seen these guys so pleased with themselves, nor so youthful.
The trick was done – or could only have been carried on so long – via the
collusion of Mario and the three Saturday Graces, who next week will be down to two.
This is Kimsey’s last shift at Le G. She’s off to Germany next week. When you come up
front to pay, she steps out from behind the counter, inclines her upper half toward you
and bends her knees slightly in order to effect a straight-on hug. You resist the impulse
to stand on tiptoe. Then she hands you a postcard. On the front, a novelty photo:
Kimsey and her fiancée, both wearing leather flying helmets, aloft in a two-seater bi-
plane. Turn the card over. Kimberly von Reisach and her new address: Schloss Reit.
Ah yes, she did wear a teeshirt that read, Will live in a castle. And on the back: Soon.
One way or another, soon comes to now.
• • •
It would be a stretch to say that Penn South, or Chelsea for that matter, is really
Lower Manhattan. Still every week the latest issue of Downtown Express appears
outside the lobby door in a fulsome pile. Keeps you abreast of happenings in and
around the bathtub. Across the top of the front page, a series of teasers for the articles
inside. You scan them – read one again. Is that what they meant to say? Or has
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journalistic concision produced an unintended meaning? “DEUTSCHE DEBRIS –
Falling glass affects Liberty.”
Say what? Immediate flash on Kristallnacht. Wait a second – New York is not
Berlin in ’38. Yeah, but tell that to your associative matrix. It takes a few beats to
extricate yourself from the historical well into which you’ve dropped and begin to haul
the words before you up into the immediate now. First off, “Deutsche” means the
Deutche Bank building – a great modernist slab built in the early 70’s to the south of the
World Trade Center, just across Liberty Street. Grievously damaged when the south
tower collapsed on 9/11, the building had to be abandoned. Over time, it turned into
an immense vertical toxic incubator so dangerous it was found advisable to entirely
sealed it. A great ongoing to-do ensues among its owners, insurers and community
activists over how best, and least dangerously, to tear the blasted thing down.
OK – turn to the article and scan. Aha. No one know precisely why but last
week this tortured building began to shed its exterior glass panels. Autonomously and
promiscuously. Which necessitated the closing of surrounding streets. Liberty Street
among them. Speculation on the cause: recent heavy rains. Sure, why not?
• • •
An email from Jessamyn wherein she drops a Greek word you don’t hear every
day: kakistocracy – government by the worst, the ugliest fellows around. Excellent word
– its aural texture so faithful to what it denotes. Repeat it a few times in your head and
it trips a sluicegate. Like a kid you start grafting kak onto a whole cascade of word-
ends: kakodox, kakonoid, kakastrophic, kakalectic, kakodelic, kakobiotic, kakorama. End up at
last with kakosphere – the atmosphere surrounding a kakotopia. Better don’t breathe too
deeply when traveling in darkest Kakostan.
which the counter-revolution we are living through produces such a nauseous,
corrosive effect on the morale of so many, yourself included, working to make art. Too
subtle a disquiet to take the form of words until now when it flows onto your page as a
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 549
concrete question: Why does our energy manifest as self-hatred, fragmentation,
feebleness of spirit and acting-in – a pernicious defeatism that cuts us off at the knees
before we can even contemplate standing up? Slippage, slippage everywhere. So what
do these symptoms remind you of? Nothing so much as the self-revulsion of people
betrayed by their idealizations. So perhaps it has to do, in part, with the way so many
of your cohort feel made fools of by their common legacy.
We’re all late children of the enormous generative forces of modernity, witnesses
to its triumphs in every form: from painting to dance, symphonic music, architecture
and the novel, not least in our own times the flowering of a popular culture of
incredible intelligence and vitality. Yet it seems as though these works of active
imagination, works we’ve internalized, allowed ourselves to be nurtured by, and whose
metabolized nutrients give us strength to produce, count for nothing against the sheer,
unmediated magnitude of the social death machine that’s engulfed us now. Yeah,
Western culture was a mixed bag when we were growing up, but who thought it would
turn out like this? But has it turned out, or is it still turning?
Because we can’t see that the multiplicity of wheels still in play, the spiraling of
things, we’ve gotten stuck off balance – lost the capacity to root while moving,
abandoned along the way the will to manifest our life-force as individuals or in any
collectively meaningful way. Thus the best option, the default, the sorry excuse for
autonomy, is to negate ourselves – beat culture to the punch. Contempt, contempt,
contempt. For self and other. Yet if that’s our home truth – doesn’t this in fact knit into
a patch of ground on which to stand? And make of this moment, more than any in
recent memory, one that allows for the embrace of an unanticipated future – the
granting ourselves, even and most especially now, license shift imaginative weight into
a field of action not utterly foreclosed – an economy of purpose still carried on bit by
Mid-afternoon jaunt, upriver from the Chelsea piers, on as mild and sunny a day
as you could want, Jonathan at the helm of the Lizzie J. Your little party lounges about,
you schmooze with a book agent, finance guy, an attorney. Whatever pleasure inheres
in this for Jonathan, it’s work too. He’s alert for other craft, scanning ahead for dark
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 550
anomalies that might be chunks of driftwood. Elizabeth descends into the cabin to urge
their lads to come away from their videos and breathe the air abovedecks.
Vivid skyline. Gwen gets a little seasick, lays her head in Katie’s lap. Under the
GWB, half wrapped for renovation. Think Christo. Think Uncle Joe perched up there
on the steelwork with his paint bucket, vertigo and all. At the tip of the island, you lie
becalmed, sloshing side to side in wakes of passing boats until everyone looks a little
green in the gills. At last, a northbound Acela rolls over the railroad bridge. The span
rotates open again and you throttle through the Spuyten Duyvil currents, bear
starboard and down, beneath the aqueduct and High Bridge till the Harlem River
becomes East, then round the Battery. The marina is a labyrinth, plenty of tight-angled
maneuvering, a good deal of it astern, and that’s where Cap’n Jon shows his mettle.
This is a man who, when motivated, can really sink his attention into the doing of
things. You imagine him, his affect the same as it is now, but not calculating the space
between two pilings, rather focused on a spreadsheet or whatever they call it in his biz.
He punches a sequence of keys and somewhere on the tides of finance, a put transforms
into a call. And there and then a ship comes in.
You find yourself remarking to a café friend: “I’m seeing New York through
fairly clean goggles now.” Where did that come from? Sounds like Gwen when she
These days, one only has to imagine a person and they appear, either
immediately, or a short while later in some unexpected place. The veil, as Katie would
say, is thin this time of year. And recently, more than once, you’ve sighted a person, a
friend or acquaintance, and been on the point of hailing them before you realize they
are dead – yet something about the living person, the stranger you’ve projected onto,
must carry their charge. The season of double takes. Triple even. No limit.
• • •
Two women of late-middle years sit next to you at Table 5. Deep in your work,
their conversation barely audible, you pay them little mind until a cell phone goes off
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directly to your left, jarring as a car alarm. Instantly, on your internal screen, an image
of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint scrambling across the face of Mount Rushmore. The
woman gropes in her bag, trying to locate the phone. Her companion looks on placidly.
Meanwhile, Martin Landau grinds his shoe sole onto the knuckles of Cary Grant’s hand
as he dangles from the cliff face, Eva Marie clinging to his leg. Again and again the
phone bleats the opening bars of the theme to North By Northwest.
On your way out, you stop by to visit Mark and Bruce ensconced side by side on
the banquette seats of Tables 9 and 10, both working feverishly at their laptops. You
relate the anecdote, if only to unjangle your nerves, forgetting for the moment that
Mark is not only a Hitchcock freak, but a keen student of music into the bargain. Ah, he
says, did not you know that for North By Northwest, Bernard Hermann took the motive
from Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony and reversed it, note for note? No, you had not
know this until now. But you dimly remember that the 8th was supposed to have been
written as an “homage” to the Great Soviet future.
Aha! On some level, it all makes nonsense.
October 7 – Early Morning
All these years to realize that the reason you gravitate to this corner of the café,
the southeast, is that for better or worse, it’s a catcher of waking dreams – though you
don’t know if it affects others who sit here the same way.
The Guardian plays up a quote from John F. Kerry: “We must look
into our souls to find our guts.” They pronounce words differently over there. “Our
souls,” particularly when slurred, has an much more alimentary sound to it.
This morning, in the early sunlight, before Marcos cranks the awning out to
block the rays, it comes to you that what the presidential debate was actually a Bush
tantrum in which the president threatened, obliquely, to resign. “The job is hard, so
hard.” Too hard and thankless. You can’t fire me, I quit. As if. Yet he wouldn’t let go
of the theme. Dogged. And querulous as a five-year old.
What a strange, compelling package of human energies. Support for Bush, apart
from interests and ideology, must arise from him being, in some weird way, fascinating
to a degree most politicians can only envy. You suspect that in many heads he sets off a
psychological war over whether to smack him one or let him have the candy. Then,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 552
while you’re still deciding which to do, he grabs it from your hand and looks so happy!
Fooled ya! This man gets over – though it’s got to be completely unconscious both on
his part and ours – by owning his country’s demonically clever inner child.
A youngish woman, very earnest and put-together, sits down at Table 11.
Unpacks her snazzy Mac and gets right to work. Her café au lait arrives, borne in the
hands of the indescribably kind and efficient Marcos. She pauses, and her glance
travels from her screen toward the bowl topped with gorgeous, sculptural foam, but not
as far as Marcos’s Mayan eyes. “Awesome,” with just that lilt of indifference.
• • •
It’s been preying on your mind lately: in what manner and to what degree are a
people – a nation, say – responsible for the acts perpetrated in their name? We tend to
assume, particularly when it suits us to do so, that a given leader or government may be
evil, but the populace as a whole is not. But does this really stand up to examination?
Or is it impossible to generalize? Is each case different? How to compare Uganda
under Idi Amin with the United States today?
Does the nature of responsibility change when one is a citizen of an aggressor
state, an empire even, and, however unwillingly, a material beneficiary of that empire’s
power? Some people exist trapped by the coercive force of a nation whose destructive
energies are turned primarily inward and only secondarily, if ever, beyond its borders.
How do, and should, their actions differ from those living in a state which asserts an
exponentially greater level of violence toward others than toward its own population?
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