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Household’s still asleep. Scan the Times online. A flurry of articles recently
around and about the hundredth anniversary of the subway. Here’s one on the graffiti
artists of the ‘70s – whose presence has been expunged from the official records of the
MTA. Here’s a picture of Lee Quinones, whose full cars you remember well, in his
Brooklyn studio. He stands before a fascinating canvas. He’s still at it, still evolving.
“If people are going to live in the dark, I’ll leave the light on for them. The art will
explain it all.”
Off to Ba Gua in the mauve and green dawn. The Empire State a blank, slate
gray, but for the amber crown she wears by night. That’s enough.
November 17 – Le G. – Early Morning
So many of your extended family in manifest despair since Bush coup two. Can’t
read the papers. Don’t find the Daily Show funny any more. Which makes sense,
particularly given that in times like these, satire, instead of stripping power of its
mystique lends an ephemeral buzz of self-congratulation to the circular logic of the
powerless: See, we’re smarter than those idiots. Yeah, but if we’re so smart then why…?
Like a boomerang wide of its mark, the energy of wit loops back on the thrower.
So all around you sense folks falling into a default position, an emotional line of
least resistance, a strategy of avoidance. It’s easier, perhaps, less disturbing, to imagine
that Bush “won” than it is to acknowledge that the election was rigged, the Democrats
went along for the ride and that we in the opposition lack whatever it takes to rise up
and jail these bastards.
Thus much time at Writing X last night spent in a kind of grieving cum
kvetching session. Some of it had to be aired, but you it let go on longer than you
should’ve since it took energy away from work in the room. So easy for the group,
yourself included, to collude in dismissing mere writing in the face of stark mad power.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 576
And then at one point, Marc, who’s been threatening to emigrate to Canada, uttered an
aside on Kerry’s rollover that sounded so defeatist and rationalizing you found yourself
nearly shouting back, involuntarily mimicking the tone and cadence of Bea’s long-dead
cousin Aaron, the firebrand Yiddish Communist: The billionaire is dead – long live the
And how now with these Notes…? Barring any major perturbations in your
flightpath, before long you’ll have two books to go out with – this one and the novel.
But out into what? Hard to imagine a welcoming committee composed of agents and
editors who, even before the great onslaught of fear and literalism routinely found your
books “too difficult.” No controlling that. Your job is to keep writing. Even if it’s only
for Katie and Gwen. For your own pleasure when you can take it. Fleeting moments of
power too, in writing it right. There ain’t no hammer this side of this mountain that ring like
mine… Eventually some of the rocks get smaller.
A scuffle between players during a Pistons-Pacers game in Detroit last night
escalated into a brawl with fans in the stands, then a full-fledged riot on the court.
What a spectacle: enraged black giants vs. white fatties.
Whatever’s bubbling beneath the surface of the country that’s sent its kids out to
claim Iraq for the multinationals – to plant their rifle butts in the backs of others – is
beginning to crack through. Uglier and uglier. It all veers into the zone of extreme
danger now, very, very fast.
Is it just your own neuroses – you who live in a city of seven-something million
Woody Allens – or can you really smell it walking these streets: a stench in the wind.
Rank in your nostrils as the meatbox you used to have to scrub out when you worked at
the 9th Circle back when you were, what, twenty?
Funny place, the 9th Circle. A West Village venture by the founder of the far
more famous Max’s Kansas City. Similar look, white-on-black graphics, cave-like inside
and redolent of hip. Grill-based food, excellent steaks, burgers and salads. One of the
benefits of working there was definitely the chow. Then someone bought the place, a
horrible, hirsute, man-like toad, who made a habit of ordering you, in the nastiest
possible way, to scramble eggs for his Yorkie. Despite which you lasted there around
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 577
three months – long-term employment in those days. Until you showed up for your
shift and the bartender-manager announced that the Circle was becoming a gay bar –
effective immediately. Now, did you want to switch orientations, or find another job?
He himself had seized the opportunity and already sported a bandana and earring – the
Buccaneer look. Which was something to see since, as a nominally straight fella, he
looked not entirely unlike Lee Van Cleef. For an instant he seemed puzzled by your
decision, then turned back to inventorying his bottles.
Back then the restaurant business – and from what you can see it hasn’t much
changed – cultivated a fine disdain for such niceties as unemployment insurance, two
weeks notice or severance pay. Nonetheless, when you walked down the steps and into
a balmy late afternoon, you celebrated your sudden liberation from work with an
extravagantly expensive take-out croissant and cappuccino from Sutter’s on the corner
of Greenwich Avenue. No benches then, but plenty of parked cars, so you hopped up
on the hood of the poshest one nearby, reclined against the windshield and drank into
your every fiber the fullness of the gathering dusk.
However cynically motivated, the decision to take the 9th Circle gay caught the
wave of the changing West Village demographics and downtown culture as a whole.
So it turned out, at least in the short term, to be a terrific business decision. The place
had always been pretty busy. Now it was packed every evening, and the bar must have
doubled its business.
A couple of years later, maybe ’73, when you started driving a cab, you’d
occasionally get a backseat full of conspicuously straight guys from out of town.
They’d give you some bogus destination, but after about three blocks one of them
would lean forward through the partition window and half-whisper: So where can we,
that you and all cab drivers were, then drop them at the 9th Circle. Gesture up the
stairs. Go get ‘em fellas, they’re wet for you.
• • •
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 578
to the traditional speedbump of Thanksgiving? Flattened by the great Hummer of
marketing. And what’s to be thankful for? Just cut to the frenzy.
The art, in the face of all real evidence, of pretending conditions are the same as
they once were. Such as riding your bicycle as though the herds of lunatic, or merely
distracted drivers in evermore huge vehicles had never transformed the streets into an
exponentially more unforgiving place.
As you pedal toward the café down the east side of Ninth Avenue, you look over
your shoulder to see if you can start edging over to your right. Usually it’s a solid wall
of rushing cars, but this time, the pack is thin. So you stick out your arm to signal them,
and start to cut across the lanes. Two of the three oncoming cars respect your move.
But the third, furthest to the right, a slick, black SUV keeps bearing down – won’t give
you a break. You signal more emphatically, put on a burst and pass just in front of him
nearly overshooting the café. What an asshole.
Slightly wobbly in the knees you lean your bike against the green parking sign
pole it shares most mornings with a rusting, abandoned three-speed that’s been chained
there since the dawn of the Pleistocene, its basket held on with wires twisted round the
handlebars, their ends sticking out and jagged enough to furnish you a nasty scratch if
you’re not careful to keep clear of them when you lock up. Wouldn’t it make sense to
bend them down? Caught up in your thoughts, the rogue SUV entirely flown out of
your head, you sense someone’s presence nearby and turn to see Robert, père de tout les
petits Gamins standing next to you, his broad face alive with distress.
“I almost killed you,” he says. “I was on the cell and I didn’t see…” He points to
the big black monstrosity parked just down the block. Then you both crack up at the
prospect, the miss as good as a mile, the bullet dodged – safe now to laugh about it.
“What if I had run over my first customer?” You weren’t really his first, but it makes a
better story this way. So print the legend. “I would have to take a handprint of your
blood and put it up by your table. Here sat Eric…” On and on spins the yarn. He
would have to take the lucky dollar bill down off the wall by the register and rip it up.
Still red-faced from laughing, he holds the café door open and in you go.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 579
Ah, the joys of car ownership – the endless alternate-side-of-the street game that
keeps you one jump ahead of sanitation sweepers and parking tickets. One more
rhythm, another step added to the dance.
This morning, when you move the car from 24th Street to a new space, you’ll do
an urban guerrilla job of it. Back up a dozen yards or so to the corner of Ninth Avenue
then, as soon the opportunity permits, swing the tail round into the intersection and
shift into drive just as the lights change and the traffic swoops south bearing you along
with it. Of course you’ll have to be careful not to back into the path of any oncoming
cars or run over pedestrians in the process. And given the increased density of folks on
the street and the fact that most of them are walking around utterly out of it, the whole
enterprise carries more risk than it did twenty years past in the days of your VW bus.
And then too, it’s flagrantly illegal and a cop might nail you. By accident you’ve done
this shenanigan right under their noses – not having seen them till afterward – but
they’ve either been oblivious or simply didn’t care. Its amazing what you can get away
with if you move with deliberate intent and don’t otherwise draw notice.
Silly really, performing this whole maneuver just to avoid blowing a precious
New York minute driving across to Seventh Avenue, then down and around. But
something in you still relishes the efficiency of the move, and at the same time, the
deliberate against-the-grain of it – the imposition of your own micro-choreography on
the official dance. When you do this backup trick, it’s executed, if you say so yourself,
with great care and impeccable timing. Thought out and acted though, paying full
In general though, road rules are off. Lots of drivers blind to the existence of
anything else – man, woman, child or mechanical beast. Who signals before turning
any more? Precious few. When changing lanes? No one you’ve seen in a while. And
some cyclists, particularly the restaurant delivery guys, have a very bracing “life is
cheap” mode of action. Any direction, any surface, any time. Gotta stay sharp or else –
voom! – they’re on top of you.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 580
Apache helicopters you helped pay for, point and click and tear up human beings who
have done neither you nor them any harm, you reverse the gray, dinged-up ’91 Taurus
Katie inherited from her mom into the intersection and turn it round. Cut across lanes
and take the corner by Le Gamin too fast to see who’s at Table 4 or 5. Sweeper
JOHNSTON’s just been through – you can see it at the far end of the block, swishing the
debris around and wetting it down – plenty of parking spaces available. Nothing to do
but sit and wait out the forty-five minutes till the clock makes you legal.
Turn on BBC news. Listen to their species of rationalization. A woman you
recognize from the neighborhood approaches, walking her black Labrador. Wife of a
veterinarian. Wavy hair, cream white skin, deep brown eyes and astonishingly broad
cheekbones. Wide, full mouth – a kind of stillness to her features, yet all components
integral in way that suggests a both a mask and a reincarnated beauty from some long-
vanished Near Eastern Ipanema. She passes not more than five feet from the side of the
car. You don’t wave and she doesn’t notice you there. In your salad days you played
drums briefly for a punk band called the Fake Germans – its lead singer and song writer
Tim Milk, a brilliant fellow. One of his lyrics described a man’s face through the
window of a jet on the runway: “a Napoleon sealed in glass.” You be he.
Every night, if she’s finished her homework, showered and hopped into bed on
time, you read Gwen from Kipling’s Kim. There’s a character, Father Victor, a
regimental chaplain who shows Kim some kindness. His stock exclamation sticks in
your head: “Powers of Darkness below!” You feel them rise up every afternoon when
the sun sets, seep through the cracks in the windows, rule your mood until midmorning
the next day. And then, a little respite while they take their nap, gathering strength for
the next assault.
While you read, Gwen draws. She swears that it calms her, makes her work leap
forward. Tough for her to put her pencil down when ten o’clock rolls around. Tough
for you to turn out the light over her bed – though her great-grandfather’s glass lamp
on the nightstand, with its tiny bulb, stays on through the night.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 581
Tired. Too tired to write or think. Loads of right-now reading on your plate, all
of which you resist. Not so much the subject matter as the contemporary voice itself
you can’t face. Whether a friend’s novel, or a Times article on the port, it’s all the same:
every word reinforces the moment, nails you deeper into your mood. Instead, you pick
up Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, find your bookmark
somewhere in the middle of his chapter on the Crusades. On the march to Jerusalem,
Mackay sows this casual footnote:
Go ahead, twenty-first century, beat that.
For Thanksgiving, one stuffed America, self-serving. Dignity-free.
Whereas the Ukrainians, whatever their shortcomings, at least have the chutzpah
to turn out en masse to contest their stolen election. Granted that the opposition is
backed by us. Still seems to be some genuine thermal energy pushing from beneath –
an urgency to the protests that, at least from a distance, doesn’t seem entirely contrived.
Early this morning at the café, a happy convergence of personalities. Gary’s
there first, then Thomas M. Next Mike, just in from Washington and soon to depart for
Texas, after which, most likely Hawaii to write the new novel. Tom too, bound for
Vietnam on Monday. As genial a group as could be imagined, all known to one another
and primed for conversation. “Ah,” says Clara, delivering Tom’s mocha on ice, “all the
boy scouts are back.” And the talk is good, while it lasts.
Slowly, without your taking notice of it, the place has been filling up with people
who’ve got Friday off, post-Thanksgiving. Suddenly, the atmosphere goes critical –
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 582
hysterical – poisonous with cell rings and braying laughter and the two of you find
yourselves, on the strength of the vibe alone, nearly precipitated into the street.
“Who are those people?” asks Tom, looking back over his shoulder, almost
furtively as if he expected to be pursued. You unchain your bike and walk doubletime,
trying to put some distance between yourselves and the assaultive mob you’ve just fled.
His question is rhetorical. You both know full well they are the clowns and clownettes
who snap up the million dollar condos in the new highrises sprouted and sprouting
west of Tenth Avenue. You can’t see or hear the cacophony any more, but rather feel,
even at the distance of half a block the ravenous energy of these beastfolk as they tear
up Le Gamin.
The handlebars feel cold to the touch, but some part of you is too paralyzed or
passive to reach into your pocket for your gloves. If it were really freezing out, and not
just chilly, maybe that would motivate you.
“We’re out of here in January,” says Tom, “we’re bailing.”
“Where will you go?”
• • •
More frequently than usual these past days, you revisit certain sinking, nauseous
moments, not once, but over and over. Moments that felt, even in realtime, like keys
turning in locks, loosing frightful things from their cages. Reagan breaking PATCO –
firing all the flight controllers, gambling with thousands of airborne lives – just a
breathtaking power play. Flash on a phone call with Larsen way back during
Contragate – Oliver North on trial, a Marine colonel assigned to the NSC who’d sold
missiles to the Iranians to fund his covert war on Nicaragua. Neither of you generally
at a loss for words, but this time, each sentence wandered off a cliff:
“Yeah man, they better convict this motherfucker…”
“He better do some serious time…”
drawn: the gap between your revolutionary yout’ and the dawn of a spineless new day.
Or else what? Not being prophets, you couldn’t describe the world on the other side of
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 583
that threshold, nor what exactly hung in the balance. Years passed and now the
embryonic words speak aloud: Or else they can get away with anything.
You come across an arresting idea whose lineage travels back through Giorgio
Agamben and Walter Benjamin to Carl Schmitt, a Weimar-era legal theorist. Writing in
every state, its basic sovereign authority, must itself be considered originally and
ultimately exempt from the juridical order it enforces. The power that ‘upholds’ the
law, must always be in some way beyond the law, ‘exempted’ from it…”
So the “paradox of sovereignty” lives always in a Kafkaesque space where “the
force of law confronts the law of force.”
• • •
What were you thinking when you arranged to meet Uwe at Le G. at noon on a
Saturday? Completely overrun. You fight your way through to the inside, scan the
tables, spot him standing, jammed in near the cash register. First you register his
playful fedora, brown with leopard spots. Then his expression beneath it, utterly
aghast. A repeat of yesterday, the atmosphere flings you out the door. As you walk
south a block to the comparative sanity of La Bergamote, Uwe shakes his head. “Like
Sunday, and an absolute deluge for most of the morning. Couldn’t see 23rd
Street for the whiteout. Still, moved the car to a better parking space and hit the not-
too-crowded Gamin for a coffee. Bad weather keeps most of the locusts at bay.
Back home only few minutes before Kelvin buzzed and came upstairs, half
soaked from the torrent, dreads bundled under a jaunty woolen hat. Here to pick up
some papers Katie drafted for him. Here’s another first rate, absolutely
uncompromising fiction writer whose work is all but unpublishable in the current
market. Four novels waiting to go. Ten years past, his second novel fetched a six figure
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 584
advance. He’s bearing up, posting his fables on his website. By training, Kelvin’s a
scientist. You don’t know the details – it was before you met – but in the early ‘80s he
worked in the lab at Harlem Hospital, where he developed a new kind of blood test.
How are his kids? Fantastic – fantastic. Doing great stuff all of them, twenty-one
at last count, mothered by a succession of highly independent women on several
continents. He’s deeply proud of these children, almost in awe of their achievements:
this one’s a doctor, another’s a Rhodes scholar, that one’s a rising soccer star. You’ve
met several of them and if they are in any way a representative sample, it’s a
remarkable set of progeny. Each one carries forward, it seems, some aspect of Kelvin’s
brilliance along with his signal trait: ambition tempered by discipline. If he had a coat
of arms, that might be his motto, in Latin.
One of his sons, several grades Gwen’s junior, goes to PS 11. So you dropping
her off, you’d run into Kelvin there once in a while. Initially Kelvin came off
overbearing and blustery, really turned Gwen off. So you gave her the lowdown: he’s
an old friend, known him years – since before she was born. When he first meets
someone, he tests them to see what they’re made of. Don’t let him intimidate you.
Counter his challenges, he can handle it. In fact the only people he respects are those
who stand their ground. Next time Kelvin razzed her, she kept her cool, and his
response was to extend her the protection of his not inconsiderable powers.
Now, overhearing your conversation, Gwen runs out of her room, down the hall
and barrels into him with a nearly overpowering hug. You talk for a few minutes more,
but he’s got to go. In the hallway, as the elevator door opens, he wags his finger at her,
repeats what he’s said more than once before. “Listen to me, Gwen. Anyone gives you
any trouble, you come to me. I’m your nigger.”
For an instant you think, while there’s Kelvin, there’s hope. Does he know you’re as
solid behind him as he’s been for you and yours?
• • •
This was it: the most beautiful sunset a city has ever seen. A gift of the heavens
powerful enough to shake the faith of the devoutest atheist. First, that incendiary red-
gold flashing off the highrise windows, all the facades to the east painted in Grand
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 585
Canyon chromas. And out your bedroom window, up the Empire State spire, a subtle
compliment of iridescent, dragonfly green. It took you a second to think: that’s not the
color of the building, those are floodlights. In an hour, it’ll turn saturation kelly, and
below that red to mark the approach of Xmas. But for now, solar power plays down
any human glow.
Then the glass-reflected embers die and comes the violet oranges to the west atop
a bright band to the southwest, almost canary, that passes across the bay, makes a
backdrop to the skyline. And then the layered clouds conspire, for five minutes – no
more – to form a mock election map, blue on their far surface, liquid red facing toward
The covering lid of clouds goes mauve now – what Wilde called purple
masquerading as gray. And below, the horizontal, once-canary band deepens,
bloodens, assumes the palette of Arizona sand and stone and clay. Here they come,
moving pinspots traversing the cloud ceiling, darkened except for a ragged blue gray
gap: the approaching planes. And moving slowly east, across the southern band, a
herd of clouds, treading on the color-demarcated air, as though it was the solid earth
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