November 29 – Le G. – Early Morning
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|November 29 – Le G. – Early Morning
You’re describing last night’s sunset to Melinda when her eyes shift and she
points out the window. A trailer truck’s rushing past – no it’s a flat truck hauling
something squared-off and greenish that rises way above the cab. Nearly out of frame
before you decode the cargo: must be a thousand Christmas trees, packed into a huge
oblong mass. A few minutes later, perhaps two or three traffic light changes, an
identical truck just as dense with compacted forest zooms past. The image comes of
two thousand trees planted around the rim of the pit downtown – the sorcerer’s
apprentice version of Rockefeller center.
One winter, ‘95 probably, though you’d have to look it up in your own book to
make sure, the Port Authority brought in some concessioneer to set up a skating rink in
the WTC plaza. A one-season affair. No way to keep the plaza open consistently, much
less the little Hans Brinker dreamworld tucked into a corner of it, so many were the
days the towers threatened to shed their icicles from on high.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 586
magazine urges “Love Your Lower Half.” Scattered on top of the glossies, today’s
newspapers, already browsed over. Ah, here’s the Times A-section. That’s odd – why is
a still from Apocalypse Now spread across four columns of the front page? Backlit by
sunrise, or is it sunset? a patrol boat plies a misty river, palm groves in silhouette lining
the bank beyond: the Mekong, the way you’ve seen it depicted so many times. Until
you read the headline “Shadow of Vietnam Falls Over Iraq River Raids: An Unseen
Enemy in an Unfamiliar Landscape.” Fooled you, and you’ll bet a million others too.
Stop by Melinda’s table on your way out. When she looks up from her paper she
wears a kind of thousand yard stare. Attempts a gallant smile. So long she’s been
battling to extract some profit out of the tremendous resources she’s poured into the
building she leases. Money she wants to fund her utopian arts colony in the outback. Is
it worth it? If you were her trainer you’d throw in the towel. These guys with deeper
pockets know she’s holding out by will alone. They’re taking their time and when they
slug, they do damage. Like Triburbia, the Meat District’s on ugly, ugly steroids of
greed. Walk in these quarters – one cannot say neighborhoods – and you can smell it, a
parasite scent, leaking up through the cobblestones: the gangrene of globalization.
Out on the street, unlock your bike. By the curb a few yards north of the café, a
parked taxi. A tall Sikh cabdriver feeds the meter. Blue turban, black beard. Off you
go. Pedal hard to cut across before the onrushing traffic. A sprocket pops, then catches.
Either the chain’s too loose or else the gears slipped. Probably the former. Too cold to
check here. Make it home in one piece first. On the opposite side of the Avenue you
see another Sikh getting out of his taxi. Older, smaller, slighter build, gray beard,
saffron turban. Why are they so far north? Usually they park at the taxi stand in front
of the Halal food shop two blocks down. Go figure. Riddle to solve another day.
• • •
Kim to Gwen before bedtime as she draws her amazing Manga cartoons.
She claims her drawing gets looser, easier when she’s read to. You bathe in Kipling’s
language like an elephant in dust.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 587
many friends, who aid him when he gets into trouble. In the text, there’s a running
phrase with variations: “The Hand of Friendship turns aside the Whip of Calamity;”
“Once again the Hand of Friendship averted the Whip of Calamity.” Would that.
Would that it would.
Whitman comes up, no surprise, in your correspondence with Jane W. You
search through your files for a copy of a piece want to send her – an Ann Lauterbach
essay on him from several years back. By happenstance, you also find, in the same
folder, a single xeroxed sheet someone sent you – a page from A Big Jewish Book:
The Baal Shem Tov used to go to a certain place in the woods & light
a fire & pray when he was faced with an especially difficult task, and it was
His successor followed his example & went to the same place but
said: “the fire we can no longer light, but we can still say the prayer.” And
what he asked was done too.
Another generation passed, & Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov went to
the woods & said: “The fire we can no longer light, the prayer we no longer
know: all that we know is the place in the woods, & that will have to be
enough.” And it was enough.
In the fourth generation, Rabbi Israel of Rishin stayed at home &
said: “The fire we can no longer light, the prayer we no longer know, nor
do we know the place. All we can do is tell the story.”
And that, too, proved sufficient.
A part of you would like to buy this line, take comfort from it. Story yes, always.
One can’t not make narratives. But it’s not enough.
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jewelry store window.
Twentieth anniversary of mass murder by accident in Bhopal.
You run, unexpectedly, into Eric in the late afternoon, eating breakfast in Le G.
How marvelous to see him, even in these heavy-hearted times, claiming again his sense
Melinda calls, utterly blown out from her latest skirmish in the real estate wars.
Getting uglier as the pot fattens. One of the creepier partners in the scheme to buy her
out tried a heavy-handed six-figure shakedown. “Can we make this part of the book?”
she asks. Sure, why not? Or in the words of the nasty little pop song: FUCK YEAH!
• • •
Guess it’s OK to have a billionaire mayor. See, he really cares. Gave the Dance
Theater of Harlem half a million bucks. And anonymously too – except it leaked out by
Don’t mourn, temporize. And chant this chant to get you through: There’s always
a way to make it OK – always a way to make it OK…
• • •
It now seems possible to imagine that there never was a concrete individual
Osama bin Laden, only a meticulously-crafted shadow man. But in the game of lies,
both the liar and the lied-to need to keep playing. Otherwise, the con breaks down, and
what happens then?
A black Town Car pulls up at the curb. Shana gets out. Drops her sweater, trips
over it, picks it up, shakes it, swings the car door closed. Is she angry with the driver?
Did he disrespect her? Does she think he did?
You watch her in the space between the little potted tree and the window
mullion as she walks toward the door, heavy-footed, like a soldier, bag slung over her
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 589
shoulder. She doesn’t see you, eyes turned inward, face set, rigid with fatigue and
something else, whatever’s eating her, too deep to fathom. Eight brothers and a sister.
Patriarchs and matriarchs who disapprove her? Who knows?
By the time you’re ready to leave an hour later, her mood’s lightened, she’s fallen
into the groove of the day. “Feel good,” you say, “Si c’est possible.”
She comes out from behind the counter, offers a genuine smile with her embrace.
“Oui, tout est possible.”
What’s that perfume? Something familiar. Very like what your ex wore.
Backward catapult. You always had to ask the clerk at Bigelows for it, since she was
embarrassed to attempt the French, even in front of someone who probably grew up in
no more privileged a world than she had. Shame and Circumstance. You see the box in
your mind then the name comes, L’heure bleue. Guerlain. No, that wouldn’t be Shana’s
style, not at this hour anyway. But goddam – your nose, even when it’s fooled, leads
you wherever it wants to go.
Suffused with a rare energy today. Leap over the enormous puddle at the
bottom of the stairs, swipe your Metrocard and precipitate into the mixing chamber.
For the first time in a couple of years you feel with the flow as opposed to swamped by
it. A whole world of diagonal currents: people heading for the Shuttle maneuvering
round the crowds pouring off it, and cutting against one another, folks making for the
street, the tunnel to Port Authority, the up and downtown 1 and 9, and the
Queensbound 7. What’s that weird ethereal Theremin-like noise? Collects into a
melody, one you know – that’s it, the theme from Dr. Zhivago, “Somewhere My Love."
An Asian woman, maybe five-two, steps directly into your path. Mechanical
smile. She tries to press a Falun-Gong pamphlet upon you – its cover features a garish
close-up photograph of welts striped across someone’s back. Scan the middle distance
as you maneuver round her. Ah, a whole passel of Falun Gong-sters staging one of
their “happenings.” Over to your right against the tiled wall, they’ve arranged
themselves in a series of tableaux vivants – like some bizarre revival of a medieval
passion play. En passant you glimpse a man wearing Chinese military drag, frozen in a
thuggish pose. Truncheon raised to strike, he astride a crouching woman, similarly
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 590
motionless, her hands bound behind her back, upturned face maquillaged with
“Somewhere My Love” ramps up in the mix. What a weird soundtrack to
accompany these ghoulish images. But then through the crowd, you spot the source of
the melody and the “MTA Music in the Stations,” banner hung above her head and it
registers that she’s got nothing to do with the Falun Gong but is rather an officially-
sponsored performer. A youngish woman, perched on a stool, eyes heavy-lidded in
apparent transports, she plays a large cross-cut saw – bowing with one hand and
bending the steel blade adroitly with the other. World class vibrato. And who’d have
imagined it? In the subway mezzanine beneath Times Square, perfect acoustics for a
Siberian logging camp. Some day, we’ll meet again, my love. Some day, whenever the spring
Is it worse here in your little corner of the world, or is this a new condition of the
species? Never, never have you seen the city, and the people in it so abstracted, or
alternatively, so stupidly aggressive – whether passive or active. Folks either bray or
speak inaudibly. Sometimes the same person will do both one sentence after the next.
If indeed it was a sentence at all. Scurry about like mice, or barge like rhinoceri. One
moment’s act of kindness, then the script flips into a zone of cold disconnect. No
modulation in between – ranting and ga-ga and cooing and barking and ga-ga and
drama. An entire social body infected with the mentality of a pissed off 10th-grader.
Someone is always the proximal cause of the ridiculous strife you see
everywhere these days. But the discord really can’t be pinned on any one person or
thing. The underlying reasons lie far off beyond anyone’s ken, so far in fact, so many
generations removed, that one loses belief in underlying reasons and simply deals in
the raw immediate. “See the problem is...” only gets you so far as one particular asshole
or incompetent, or the person on the wrong side of the stairs with the cane or baby
carriage – the explanation only gains a nanosecond of satisfaction before it’s
overwhelmed by a sense that there’s no way of putting anything right for more than an
instant before the whole dance goes out of whack again. Who’s crazier, the abusive
customer at the pharmacy, or the weird, resistant, untogether clerk on the other side of
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 591
the counter? Whose chip trumps whose shoulder? When humanity breaks down, it
does so as a collective – one by one. Too bad we haven’t learned to steady ourselves
that way. When the boat starts keeling over, everyone jumps up.
And now Christmas, turned predator, upon us like a wolfpack scenting blood.
The mailman hauls in bursting sacksful of absolute rubbish to stuff in the boxes as
though they were the throats of helpless geese. For every genuine exchange of holiday
greetings, a multitude of false communications – the seven deadlies working overtime
to rip us one from another, destroy any sense of fellowship. How long can this go on?
Our only remaining agency to lash out at the merest, nearest stimulus, or in anticipation
thereof. Never so mindless as now, not in your lifetime leastwise.
• • •
When was it put to a plebiscite? Resolved: We shall attempt global domination in
your name. In exchange for which, you and your children will live as a hated people, always in
fear of retribution, consoled only by your ability to purchase vast amounts of crap, and the
knowledge that your weapons, and willingness to use them, sharpens the thirst for vengeance in
your enemies and wreaks terror among multitudes who mean you no harm. All in favor?
Monday. Friday past you finished editing the first section of these notes and
crashed into a wall you didn’t see coming. Instead of any sense of triumph, just bone
deep humiliation and diminishment. Fallen off the earth entirely. An awful feeling of
exile not only from humanity, but from Katie and Gwen as well.
Scrape your energy together for a trip up to the Met. Dinner in the subterranean
cafeteria you’ve semi-boycotted this past year partly because they close it at 7 p.m.
whereas the great old upstairs restaurant – now being converted into an expansion of
the Greek and Roman galleries – used to stay open till the museum closed. Plus it was
vast and airy. Live music too. On alternating evenings, a florid and heavy-handed
pianist, whose dour expression belay her “pops” repertoire, and a jazz-flamenco
guitarist – a fellow with a shaved head, clothed all in black, whose style of playing
seemed so internally focused as to render his listeners incidental.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 592
made you twitch in anticipation of the next glissando. The guitar player, for his part,
always pulled out some improvisation that cut through the white noise of the cafeteria,
got you to listen closely.
The new space, with its piped-in music, would be less objectively awful if it
didn’t stand in relation to the former cafeteria which felt like the dining equivalent of
the reading room at the main branch of the Library – a wonderful sense of “public” to it.
One breathed more expansively there – the atmosphere itself invited a sense of open
possibility. Like the way it felt to walk on Port Meadow, the great tract of common land
just outside Oxford. By the gate, a little plaque with a line from Gerard Manley
Hopkins: Aftercomers cannot guess the beauty been. But yes, you could guess at it. The
ground was soaked that morning, but something besides water came up through your
What are you aiming at? Laying down some trace of beauty been? That alone
could never sustain you. Tenuous work, this casting of threads toward a beauty that
may never come. Little by little.
Still, here you are, eating a meal together with your loved ones. Katie and Gwen
gamely toast your achieved draft with a touching of the rims of plastic water cups
delivered to your table by Hussein, one of the two cafeteria workers you befriended in
the days when you used to eat at the Met nearly every week. Well over a year since
you’ve seen him, and he was clearly delighted at your family’s return. As you leave,
Gwen gives him a hug, just like back in the upstairs days, and he drinks in her affection
like water from some very deep well. He’s looking grayer at the temples, a bit smaller
too, though no doubt it’s just that Gwen has grown. Who knows, maybe you’ll be back
over the holidays, but at this rate, not likely. Will Hussein have retired next time you
come? In any case, Gwen will soon be too much a young woman for such hugs to be
“appropriate.” But now is now.
Upstairs to the Christmas tree, incredible as ever. Gwen wants to sketch one of
Neapolitan angels, so you nudge her into asking the guard if she can set up her stool.
He assents. You tell her you’ll be back in twenty minutes and walk Katie to the
sculpture court where she unfolds her stool before Carpeaux’s marble sculpture of
Ugolino – a piece so hypnotically wrenching that even the Met’s urbanely bourgeois
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 593
surround cannot fully domesticate it. His eyes gone blank with horror, shoulders
rounded inward toward his hollow chest, this most tortured of Dante’s souls stuffs his
fingers into his mouth desperate to ward off, however briefly, the moment he will turn
on his own progeny and devour them. His sons gaze up at their father’s face
beseechingly, they cling to his legs, drawn up and nearly knotted in anguish. Ugolino’s
bony back arches forward, torqued like the spine of some supernatural animal. By the
time you’ve walked all round, Katie’s laying down lines, fully engaged.
Whither you? Your internal compass pulls toward Mesoamerica. Some of what
you see there feels so Asian – or vice versa – you want to put up a sign: “Look at this
Mayan dancer. Now go check out the postures of the Hindu deities. Incredible the
similarities of gesture, no? This laughing child from central Mexico – isn’t he the
spitting image of Buddha, pendulous earlobes and all?” Amazing the conversations
going on among these forms. But neither the little cards next to the artworks, nor the
descriptions of their geographic origins so much as hint at it.
When you return for Gwen, she has produced a very delicate, stylized, sketch of
an angel that looks more than a little like a fairy version of one of her Manga-girl
characters. But the tilt of the head’s spot on, and the weight of the censer has the
quality of truth. Katie’s still at work on Ugolino at closing time. She’ll have to return
and finish it another night. Altogether uncanny her drawing – as though the sculpture
has melted away and she’s rendered it from some original flesh and blood. You’ve seen
her do this before. Her drawings of sculptures are less renderings of stone objects than
windows in on the pre-subject itself. Rather than feeling like another generation of
observation, they seem to erase whole layers, revealing the thing in its unmediated
Jesus, it’s been a lousy few days. Constant tension on the homefront, sometimes
skirmishes, occasionally outright war. On top of which, your body’s decided to freak
out on you. You feel like eighty, whatever that means. Right shoulder’s so stiff you can
hardly lift your arm. And your jaw, where it hinges on the left, seized up too. A
horrible crepitating sound when you chew as though you’re consuming yourself and
your food at the same time. Wait it out. See if you’re falling apart or just feel like you
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 594
loop around to get a closer look. The new crystal ornament suspended over the
intersection of Fifth Avenue and 57th, flashes its myriad refractions. You’d never much
cottoned to the giant snowflake that’s hung there every Christmastime far back as you
can remember. This new decoration is something different – its symmetries jewel-like,
above and before geometry. Unearthly and in some ways a gorgeous, liberating sign –
however meticulously crafted – of untamable forces that pre- and ante-date our
posturings. Even in this zone of haute real estate, something whispers in this play of
light: Not so fast, humanity. You’re not the whole story. Only a chip of it. Maybe not even
• • •
Funny quote in yesterday’s LA Times from a guy named Clifford Arnebeck – an
attorney in Columbus, Ohio, head of an alliance that’s petitioning the state supreme
court to throw out the official ballot results. “I can’t for the life of me understand why
Kerry isn’t fighting harder for this. Maybe it’s some secret Skull and Bones tradition,
where you’re not supposed to show up the other guy.”
Cold and damp. Move the car to 22nd Street. Wait it out until 10:30 for a space
good until Friday. A little red Subaru pulls in behind you. Turn on BBC World Service.
The newscaster, his intonation faithful to a thousand spoofs, is interviewing a man
billed as “a Ukrainian novelist and shrewd social observer,” who, for his part, reprises,
parrot-like, and without missing a single one, every contemporary globalist cliché –
albeit in Slavic-accented English. So predictable are the questions and responses that
after a couple of minutes you turn down the volume and begin to mimic, in alternating
accents, both sides of the pseudo-dialogue. A man passes by, sees you in animated
conversation with yourself, shoots you a look. You raise your eyebrows in return: So
Sudden yen for a takeout coffee from Le G. Lock the car and chance a ticket.
Shouldn’t take more than a minute to run to the corner and back and there’s no cops
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 595
nowhere. When you return, you pass the Subaru, notice the bumper sticker: Delaware
County Fair. A woman with white hair sits in the driver’s seat, playing an alto
recorder, sheet music spread across the steering wheel. Pretty sophisticated stuff.
Bach? Can’t hear it because the windows are up. You veer a bit closer to get a better
look, but the furry gray dog in the backseat objects. He leaps up begins to bark
furiously, teeth clicking against the glass, then quiets as you move away. Throughout,
the woman plays on unperturbed. Eight million wonderments in the bundled-up city.
• • •
You’ve just noticed it these last few nights from your bedroom window when
you look toward Lower Manhattan: a flashing light on the roof of the Dow
Jones/Oppenheimer building in the World Financial Center. Not like the accustomed
red beacons on several other downtown towers, this one’s almost photonically white,
like it wants to punch a hole in the macula of its beholder. By far the most intense
illumination downtown, it’s made it impossible to take in the view from this angle
without blinking. If you shift your gaze to another quadrant of the horizon, say toward
Brooklyn, it pops in the corner of your eye like a nasty flashbulb. Bit by bit, this place is
becoming unlivable at the level of the senses.
• • •
Bedtime reading. No one like the venerable Mackay, of Extraordinary Popular
Delusions… to help you see the here and now if not in perspective, than at least in a
broader sweep of mad crowds down through time. “A company for carrying on an
undertaking of great advantage, but nobody knows what it is.” This the title of a
scheme proposed by an anonymous fellow and subscribed to during the South Sea
Bubble of the 17th century. In the space of one day, the author of this offering took in
two thousand pounds, whereupon he vanished, presumably to the Continent.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 596
winters ago. Into the embrace of winter.
At the café, give a copy of the new American Letters & Commentary to Eduardo
who’s heading for Spain tomorrow. Seeing that you’ve got the first few pages of
Orogene in there, he proposes to pass the magazine on to Constantino B., whom,
Eduardo assures, you remains interested in your work. Off he goes into the cold with
many good wishes, and thus ends the morning’s bonhomie. Within moments of
Eduardo’s departure, Dylan, at Table 4 and Paul at Table 6, nearly come to blows after
trading and upramping a series of evermore ad hominem insults. Lucky thing they’re
separated by a baffle of Erics at Table 5.
On the surface the fight would seem to be about different political views – for the
past several years Dylan’s been reading deeply from the well of alternative explanations
and thinks he’s got it figured out: the ills of the world devolve from a cabal
perpetuated by the Pope – and Paul, for his part, articulates fragments of received
wisdom as though they were the grand unifying theory of why-we’re-in-deep-shit-now-
worse-than-ever. But they’ve only just met, so most likely there’s a goodly dose of
Eventually, as with John’s blowups at Eric B., things sort of chill out. But all the
kettles are near boiling over. You see it demonstrated everywhere in a thousand
different ways – people unraveling, losing their cool, their religion, whatever. And you
too bro, you too. Going off on all kinds of crazy shit. As if it mattered, as if the fate of
nations hung in the balance on some real or imagined slight. Wisdom flees at every
hand. The woods and welkin don’t so much ring as clang.
Some desperate fear that we are unrecognized by others? Or a fear of aspects of
self we can’t or won’t admit to consciousness? So back you go to Montaigne, that
elaborator of what it was to be an individual spirit’s sovereign and who thought to say
in fifteen hundred-someodd: We are all made up of fragments so shapelessly and strangely
When you get home, go straight to your shelf and find the passage you
highlighted years ago from “On some lines of Virgil.”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 597
nothing, but I go in mortal fear of being mistaken for another by those who
happen to know my name. If a man does all for honor and glory what does
he think he gains by appearing before the world in a mask, concealing his
true being from the people’s knowledge? If you praise a hunchback for his
fine build he ought to take it as an insult. Are people talking about you if
they honor you for valor when you are really a coward? They mistake you
for somebody else. It would amuse me as much if such a person were to be
gratified when men raised their caps to him, thinking that he was master of
the band when he was merely one of the retainers. When King Archelaus of
Macedonia was going along the street somebody threw water over him.
His entourage wanted to punish the man. ‘Ah yes,’ he replied ‘but he never
threw it at me but at the man he mistook me for.’ When somebody told
Socrates that people were gossiping about him he said, ‘Not at all. There is
nothing of me in what they are saying.’ In my case, if a man were to praise
me for being a good navigator, for being very proper or very chaste I would
not owe him a thank you. Similarly, if anyone should call me a traitor, a
thief or a drunkard I would not think that it was me he attacked. Men who
misjudge what they are like may well feed on false approval. I can see
myself and explore myself right into my inwards; I know what pertains to
me. I am content with less praise provided that I am more known. People
might think that I am wise with the kind of wisdom I hold to be daft.
What becomes of this morning’s fracas? Paul, you don’t know all that well. He’s
a father and an artist and middle-aged into the bargain. But you had a flash of fear for
Dylan. Young, unattached, he could easily see himself captain of a band of freedom-
fighters. Perhaps he’ll find willing comrades. But what if he does not? Or deepens his
isolation. Either way, it smells dangerous.
Finally plow through two massive, nearly month-old Times articles on the
scramble to bring the re-burgeoning port up to speed with the tides of commerce. The
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 598
containers come in full of goods, much from Asia via the Panama Canal. They leave
mostly empty, except for our waste paper and scrap metal. We make nothing more to
send to the world. And the ever-larger ships arrive, their drafts already too deep to
make it through our channel. And soon to be built, ships wider and longer than the
Panama locks will accommodate. You want to grab someone, perhaps the Times
reporter, perhaps one of the gray men who run the Port Authority, perhaps some fellow
passing on the street, seize them all by the lapels and shout: Why are we not building the
ships and making things to fill them with? Could not this city engineer a line of freighters,
superb, fast and capacious and suited to our port’s conditions? Could we not set a new shipping
standard for the world rather than dance to the tunes played by others?
But then that would require a different quality of investment. One that had little
to do with vanity. Nothing to do with symbols. And everything to do with how a city
and its region get a living, how an economy weaves itself into the world. It requires
asking the humbling question: what’s needed, and how can we make it?
Held your annual Solstice bash the evening of the 16th – a livingroomful of your
past and current students, a select few from among the Gamin circle and other extended
families. A great success by all accounts. Then, after cleaning up, took to your bed on
and off for nearly two days with a cold that’s determined to leap down into your chest.
Made a brief appearance at the café attempting to feel cured. Dylan bounded up
to your table and apologized for the ruckus of the other day, though in truth it was far
from being entirely his fault. Said he’s got a lot to learn about how to handle those
kinds of situations. So open his affect, it allays, for now, your fears about where he’s
Put up the tree today – a fake – but apart from the lack of scent, good enough to
fool almost anyone. And in any case you’ve gotten used to it over the years – a gift
from Frank after Gloria died in ’94, the annus horribilis which opened with Katie’s
father’s death and closed with your mother’s. Too many friends in between the two.
You feel a bit guilty about Gwen not having a real tree, which you did as a kid, but
she’s said over and over she wouldn’t want one that had been cut down for decoration.
Done up with lights and ornaments, not least Katie’s foil origami’s and crowning star,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 599
your ersatz tannenbaum’s a modest, yet magnificent sight. When you go out to move
the car, you see its tip, visible from aways down Eighth Avenue.
Turn on the radio to WNYC. “Wachet auf” is playing, and for a moment you’re
taken back somewhere, and dumbstruck by its beauty. For the timespan of a cantata,
you’re living in the Age of Reason in the age of Fallujah.
Cheyney, your haircutter, works out of her apartment on 21st Street just west of
Seventh. You and Katie have been going to her for years, first met her when she
worked in a hideous, ripoff salon around the corner on Eighth. When she left, she took
you and a passel of other customers with her. She’d be talented shaping any three-
dimensional form and she makes jewelry on top of clipping. Born in Korea, raised by a
pharmacist and his wife in Ohio, along with seven other adopted kids, she’s one of
those quietly remarkable souls.
Her TV’s always on when you go for your shearing. A big monster dominating
the living room, the volume cranked up way beyond your capacity to tune it out,
though Cheyney takes little notice of the visual and sonic assault, has no problem
conversing over the din. When your appointment is in the afternoon you get talk
shows. Today, unfortunately, it’s news hour. Amidst hazy smoke, guys in fatigues pull
guys in blood-soaked fatigues out of a jumbled ruin. Ah, the rocket attack on the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 600
American mess tent in Iraq. Twenty-something dead, scores grievously wounded.
Wolf Blitzer on the left side of the split screen, hovering above the CNN logo like the
Cheshire cat. Hard to believe your ears but he reads it straight-faced off the
teleprompter, with no seeming distaste for having his mouth stuffed with so much
pious alliteration: “In Mosul today, scenes of carnage and courage, horror and
heroism.” Cheyney doesn’t bat an eye or skip a clip. She’s twaddle-proof. Your talk
runs to family and she shows you a picture of her beautiful five-year old niece in
Florida. Keeps on clipping.
• • •
Jack Newfield dies and your sadness catches you by surprise. Nearly if not the
last of a fast-vanishing breed of professional journalists capable of eloquence and
outrage. You only spoke to him once. A couple of days after 9/11 he called about an
article he was doing for New York Magazine, one you’d actually been asked to do but
begged off of saying you neither wrote fast enough to make their deadline, nor could
craft prose in a style that would work for them. Newfield asked you a lot of questions
and you told him pretty much everything you knew about the trade center. Intelligent,
down-to-earth and collegial is how you recall his presence on the other end of the line.
Courthouse errand with Katie down to the civic center. Then lunch at New
Green Bo on Bayard Street. On the way home, pick up a scarf and earrings – stocking-
stuffers for Gwen. Prominently displayed outside every variety store, racks full of
magnetic “Support Our Troops” ribbons – in yellow and stars and stripes – for
plastering on the tailgates of gas guzzlers. Inexpensive enough to buy ‘em by the
dozen. Even cheaper if you bargain. And they’re made, proudly or not, in… China.
• • •
Amazing what you don’t notice. How long has it been here? The sidewalk is
hardly new. You must’ve walked over it a thousand times. Still today you register for
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 601
the first time the drawing someone scrawled in the still-wet cement on the corner across
the street near Kyung’s deli, perhaps before it was Kyung’s deli. Floating in a square of
pavement, the cartoonish outline of a ghost about eight inches high and incised,
probably with an index finger, when the cement was wet. As though to leave no doubt
about the figure’s significance, three letters growing larger as they emerge from its
Now your mind must really be turning in ever smaller spirals, because as you
contemplate the figure between your shoes you fall into a visual paradox. Given that
the B sound precedes the OO sound as the word is uttered, it makes no sense – within
our generally-accepted space-time – that the B is the closest letter to the ghost’s mouth.
It ought to be the other way round. If the B came out first, it should be furthest away,
yes? No? Illogical or not, we’re in the habit of reading from left to right and have also
learned, from prior exposure to similar images, that ghosts don’t say OOB.
So it goes to show that when the conditions are right, our decoding powers are
altogether capable of neutralizing contradictions the way spirits move through solid
walls. And we do this routinely, regardless of whether we believe in ghosts.
Shrunk to scale, the military posturings of an empire. The earth gives a little
shrug and a tidal wave shows who’s boss.
Down to Western Beef with Eric B. to buy provisions for tonight’s party. The
shopping cart’s so huge, you didn’t realize till checkout that you had a dozen
bagsworth of stuff in it. Loaded into the trunk of a cab, then on to his new digs at
Maria’s loft in Triburbia.
Closest thing to a tradition here – things that happen more than twice running.
How long have you been ushering in the New Year at Eric’s? Five years now, the four
prior at his old place in Chelsea. Every time, as the countdown approaches, he passes
out copies of “Auld Lang Syne.” And after the corks pop, all the verses get sung, with a
chorus in between, embarrassment giving way to the lyrics’ sentiment with every
passing stanza. Despite the fact that no one understands what half the words mean.
But that’s alright – Rabbie probably didn’t either. In one year, and out the other.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 602
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