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- January 4 – Midafternoon
- January 14 – Le G. – Early Morning
- January 17 – Midmorning
- January 18
- January 20 – Early Morning
- January 21 – Le G. – Early Morning
All three of you roust yourselves out of bed in time to catch a special 9:30 a.m.
subway run out to Coney Island. Six cars of different vintages, from the ‘30s through
1940. Red leatherette upholstered seats, ceiling fans, bare bulbs and hand-cranked
destination signs. The first car jammed to the gills, you ride in the second,
manufactured in 1932 and taken out of service in the early ‘70s. When the train hits a
gap in the third rail and the lights dim for an instant – the way incandescents do and
fluorescents don’t – the stimulus throws you back some years, and it comes home how
thoroughly you’ve shifted the textures of whole decades into a deep storage unit
reserved for obsolete sensations. Adaptive will to the future. Your internal Swann
would just get in the way.
Debark at Brighton Beach, wander around some, and then stroll the boardwalk
to Coney Island. A greasy boardwalk brunch. As one o’clock nears, the three of you
scramble onto a boulder jetty, and from this advantageous spot, watch as a few dozen
hard core Polar Bears, and several hundred regular folks emboldened by the fluky
sixty-degree air temperature, send up a great roar from the beach and charge headlong
into the waves. A buzz-cut young brave in baggies holding aloft a large American flag
makes three splashing sorties into the surf and back ashore, accompanied by a double
handful of similarly gung-ho compatriots, who rally at last on the sand to send up a
chorus “God Bless America,” more shouted than sung.
Among the spectators sharing a perch on the jetty, a cluster of middle-aged,
leather-clad bikers, their jacket backs emblazoned with red, yellow and green dragons
surmounted by the club name in faux-calligraphic letters: the Nam Kings. Must’ve
parked their bikes over across the boardwalk and crossed the sand in their boots. The
guy closest to you has his name and “Brooklyn” embroidered on his jacket hem. He’s
stocky, with graying hair and chiseled features. From his belt-loop, like a rosary, hangs
a loop of beads in the three colors of the dragon. He gazes out toward the ocean then
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 603
back again at the leaping, shrieking crowd. You’ve got more or less the same view. But
no idea of what he sees.
To your left at the end of your near empty car on the downtown E-train sits a
man of medium complexion with overgrown black hair and beard. Unusually long
lashes. Intelligent, introspective eyes. Compact build, not fat, but round-featured.
Your age more or less. His bulky jacket and pants, originally light colored fabrics, shine
in spots with a patina of grime. He adjusts his position from sitting back, pulls one leg
up across the knee of the other and with great deliberation, unties his tennis shoe and
removes it. Head inclined, a flash of tonsure at the crown. Almost casually, he peels off
his sock, lays it on the seat and unhurriedly rubs his foot, running his fingers over its
whole surface and particularly between the toes. His brow furrows. The look is not so
much troubled as one of deep mentation. From his coat pocket he withdraws another
sock – at this distance indistinguishable from the one he removed – eases it on carefully,
inserts his foot into the shoe and with unhurried and precise movements reties the
laces. Caught up in watching him you almost miss your stop. But not quite. So you do
not see what he does with the sock he took off, or whether he repeats the procedure
with the other foot. How unusual it is, aside from all else, to witness any action carried
out with such exactitude and attention to detail, such unforced ease of movement.
On the way to Le G. you encounter a cyclist heading toward you against the
traffic on Ninth Avenue. It’s a bit nip and tuck, but you get round one another. What
makes it tricky is that his load is about four bikeswidth. He’s carrying several immense
plastic bags filled with cans and bottles slung over his shoulders and across the bike
itself. If one didn’t know otherwise, it’d look like a circus act. So quickly do you have
to execute your swerve to avoid him yet not stray into the path of the cars rushing by,
and so striking is the whole of the image, the robin’s egg blue of one of the bags, that
you hardly register his face, except that there’s a kind of shadowed darkness to it,
which may be cast by the hood of his parka. Some reminder too of the heavy-laden
bikes that once plied the Ho Chi Minh trail. But their center of gravity was lower and
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much of the time they were pushed, not pedaled – more two-wheeled carts than riding
machines. Nor is this man bringing ammunition and supplies to the NLF. Instead,
redeemables to Gristedes, maybe ten dollars’ worth.
• • •
A piercing scream from the street. At your desk, writing, immersed in another
world, you reenter this one fast, but having done so, check your spiked adrenalin,
attune your ears to what comes next. Another scream. Subtly less blood-curdling, this
one cues you that no awful thing has happened, recalibrates your alarm, assuages your
bristling nerves, whisks you back to the age of fifteen when you heard it not from
twenty floors above and over traffic noise – but directly in your ear, jostling down the
steps onto Ludlow street after a day spent immured within the walls of Seward Park.
School’s out! No need to look out the window. Your mind’s eye shows you the face of
this afternoon’s screamer, laughing now among her friends, having taken it upon
herself to give voice to the collective energy of the students just uncorked from Fashion
High and tumbling out onto 24th Street. Who was the founder of this sisterhood, one
that must go back long past 1965? Did the first scream sound like this one? And if so,
how did it cover the distance between then and now unadulterated, its force
undiminished? Like a jolt of AC current traveling down a long, long wire.
Fallujah’s a gated community of ghosts now. A nightmare city of corpses, dogs
and rabid dogs. Strips of white tape to demarcate the cordon sanitaire.
Now Mosul. A 500-lb. bomb dropped on the wrong house. “…deeply regret the
loss of possibly innocent lives…”. Will the dead now be reborn as unambiguously
innocent, or is it the fate of all such casualties to remain possibly guilty? Praise the lord
and pass the qualifiers.
Check the anti-war websites online, see what’s planned for inauguration day in
DC. NARAL will be demonstrating, but the closest thing to a rallying cry for mass
protest is a United For Peace and Justice statement urging “everyone who can to
converge” on the capital. That’s it.
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fatal dose of kakistocracy. When the patient’s this sedated, there’s no gag reflex. It’s
just that easy.
• • •
Lexington and 53rd Street station, mid-afternoon. Wish you had some singles.
Even a handful of change. All you’ve got is a five – way more than your superego
allows you to give away, even to a singer this good. Gospel, à capella, and so deeply in
the spirit you can feel the beat even after the oncoming train drowns out the words. So
you give him nothing and get on board. Overriding a twinge of guilt, you sit near the
open door, eking out a few more seconds.
gotta run and tell somebody how good He’s been.
Lord, He makes me love my enemies,
He makes me love my friends –
Stand clear of the closing doors. Fifth Avenue will be next. E-train to the
World Trade Center.
Should’ve put Abraham Lincoln in his cup. Next time you’ll know better.
January 14 – Le G. – Early Morning
Funny coincidence. That woman across the room at Table 13 was in the audience
last night when Gioia held court inside the red tent on the second floor of ABC Carpet.
Thirty people or so, all making themselves as comfortable as possible, leaning against or
sitting on pillows within a fantastical space, reserved during the day for women and
girls, and composed of myriad fabrics in every imaginable shade of red.
You’ve seen Gioia’s perform before, but this time found her presence nothing
short of mind-blowing. As she spoke and gestured, queried and responded, you felt
her discorporate and reembody, sometimes as another self and saw the forces of story
play with her, like water and wind having a go at a small boat. Gioia is powerful, but
she’s mortal, and story isn’t – at least not in the same way. And that’s what you caught
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there, its elemental nature. Several fragmentary tales of birds, a raven-child, crows, and
one trickster who falsely claims to have a priceless jewel lodged within itself. And
Hans, the hedgehog boy, creature of the margins. At certain moments, she seemed to
transform into a central pole, rooted in the earth and holding up the tent itself.
Odd how these things go. For years you’ve walked past the ABC building on
Broadway and 18th, little realizing that a vertical bazaar existed inside, stacked floor on
floor, the whole so overwhelming in its abundance that it immediately trumped Urban
Outfitters as Gwen’s retail utopia. She wandered around among the Buddhas, oriental
rugs and driftwood furniture in a kind of sense-overloaded trance. Why had you never
ventured in there before? Once again, a holdover from your childhood – all these
places you tell yourself you don’t belong. Too expensive, too vulgar, too whatever it is
you sense isn’t congruent with “your” culture. Contradiction. How is it possible for an
out-and-out mongrel to hold fast to the ideals of a purist? Pretty silly.
This morning the weather’s silly too – temperature up in the high fifties, and you
walked here in a rainsquall that blew waves of water everywhich way, so that even
covered by an umbrella the size of a small yurt, you arrived soaked to mid-thigh.
Battleship gray cloud cover, with angry slate-colored vapor shreds whipping across the
building tops. If you didn’t know better, you’d say that Gaia’s talking and the these are
the evidences of her breath – that story itself is shifting the balance, one way or another.
And there’s that woman at Table 13. No big thing. Only that it sharpens your suspicion
that coincidence itself has changed.
Local intelligence at the café listening post: three shootings in as many months in
and around the Elliot Houses and the public health clinic where they dole out
methadone and flu vaccinations. Two fatalities, a lull, then more gunfire – bullets flying
in broad daylight. Just down the block from PS 133 and the galleries, Tony’s loft too.
Drug war in West Chelsea – Martha Stewart’s back yard.
Melinda’s in this a.m. The court has decided she either has to “cure” or be out by
February 11. Since she can’t do the former, she’ll crate up her belongings, works on
paper and the piano, and ship it all down to Kingston. Time’s up. Incredible, really,
that she had the stamina to play it out this long. Somehow though, Melinda seems
lighter, emerging from under the crush of the real estate nightmare. Agreed that you,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 607
and all the others who were transformed by Bombora House, will find a way to
ceremonially mark its decamping – to where?
• • •
Blown-off branches all over the sidewalks on the fast walk home. Temperature
plummeting. Funny – you don’t recall seeing all this debris on your way here, though it
must’ve been pruned by last night’s howling wind that woke Katie first, then you
White delivery van – Mitchell London Foods – sits with its flashers on in the
intersection of 22nd and Eighth, midway into a left turn. When you make the corner
you see the fellow the van hit, lying in the crosswalk in the manner of a dropped
marionette, eyes open. A cop in a slicker squats down by the man’s head. “What’s
your name?” Sirens on their way uptown.
• • •
Noon. On your way up to Kelly’s to get stuck with needles, a trio of bronze-
pancaked, blonde women, Bergdorf shopping bags in tow, hop on the train at 34th
Street. They’re garrulous, loud enough for you to overhear one of them say she adores
a TV show called “Eeyore.” That’s odd, she doesn’t seem like a Winnie-the-Pooh type.
Besides which, from her description the show sounds more like a hospital drama. It
takes a long moment for your Manhattan ear to attune itself to the nuances of Long
Island English. Right, that’s it: “ER.”
• • •
Midafternoon. What a trip – invited to tea with Gioia at the Century Club.
You’d met her there for lunch years before, but didn’t remember you had to wear a
jacket, but the fellow in the checkroom finds a spare navy blue blazer for you to borrow.
You find her upstairs, sitting in an immense room with a woodfire blazing
beneath a mantelpiece broad and tall enough to drive a truck through. Sample your
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first Century martini, gin, straight up, two olives. A discretely small glass, the rest of
the dose served in a little steel pitcher on the side. Lethal. Clinical. Then comedy.
From across the room, watch yourself try to get out of a wing chair.
• • •
Gwen goes off this evening with Mark and Bruce to see Savion Glover dance at
the Joyce. Which leaves you free to trip up to the met with Katie, not least so she can
finish Ugolino. At the cafeteria, Hussein asks: “Where is my daughter?” with that half-
accusing look Gwen’s fans give you whenever you have the temerity to show up
You tell him she’s out on the town with friends and he puts his arm on your
shoulder, whispers as though imparting a confidence, “She is good girl. Ever since –”
he puts his hand out at mid-thigh level, to recall her toddler height. “She is loving
people. Soft heart. She is human being.”
MLK’s birthday, celebrated. Overcast. Light dusting of snow. Head toward the
café. Pigeon flock wheels over Eighth Avenue, flips you back to the old days when
there were a half dozen or so coops on the roofs of the tenements in the lower 20s. But
these are free range birds, doing their aerial routine, and eventually they alight in a row
along the Allerton cornice.
As you make the right on to 22nd, you see two stragglers having at it under the
hotel’s marquee, pecking and beating their wings. The fight seem over who gets to
perch on the left-hand pilaster top, but there’s a vacant roost on the right side too,
plenty of room for both, so why the rhubarb? But then perhaps the conflict’s over
something else altogether, something only a pigeon would know. The combatants are
making such a protracted commotion that the two men hanging out in the doorway
find it expedient to get out of their way and abandon their shelter for the open street.
Animals fight and humans scatter. Don’t see that every day.
• • •
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A girl, 13, is identified as the mother of a newborn found wrapped in towels and
stuffed a plastic bag outside a church in the Bronx. Apparent homicide. Grand jury
deciding whether to prosecute her as an adult. Cops questioning the purported father.
Bitter, baby, bitter cold snap.
Condi, the anti-Kundalini, soon to be confirmed as Secretary of State, appeared
this a.m. before the Senate and, in response to a question on Iraq policy said: “We’ve
had an evolution of attitude.” Evolution of attitude – now what sort of animal is that?
And toward what baleful spot is it slouching to be born?
• • •
Sitting across from you in the subway downtown, a heavy-set woman of middle
years slumps in her seat, eyes half closed. Most likely not an active-duty member of the
armed forces, she nonetheless wears a heavy, camouflage-patterned coat. A bulging
olive-drab duffle bag lies on the floor before her. Balanced on the bag, a pair of waffle-
soled shoes. Disconcerting image, yet comic. From this angle, it looks for all the world
as if she’s detached her feet and set them atop the bag. Logic tells you that can’t be true,
her feet are simply hidden from view. But try telling that to your mind, which ever so
strives for some kind of order, even at the price of imposing absurdity.
Christmas season being over, the lights are gone and shreds of plastic festoon the
street trees, fluttering in the wind.
A laugh catches up from two days ago during the Condi hearings. Some senator
– you missed his name – bemoaned the state of our foreign policy, and likened, in so
many words, the circumstances of the U.S. of A. to those of Blanche Dubois, dependent
as we are “on the kindness of strangers.” Extraordinary association, particularly
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 610
coming from a capitol hill politician. On second thought not so remarkable really, given
that lobbyist is just another way of saying kind stranger.
This morning on NPR news, a broadcast of soldiers taped as they prepare to
leave Kuwait on a supply convoy into darkest Iraq. “Rock and roll!” shouts the
sergeant as the trucks rev and rumble, then in a kind of mocking incantation: “Hajji
can’t shoot, Hajji can’t surf!” – a whole litany of hysterical wardings-off. He’s cranked
on something, that’s for sure. What’s the pharmacology of choice for soldiers dealing
with this war?
From Table 4 you see Tom push his way through the dark green floor-to-ceiling
curtain Grainne’s put up around the doorway area to keep out frigid drafts.
Ridiculously ineffective, and the bloody thing looks like a shroud – cuts out a quarter of
the sunlight that could help warm the place. Tom chats up Clara by the register, then,
bearing his ice mocha to go – a stunning concept given the weather outside – saunters
over to exchange greetings. You pose the question on your mind. He thinks a minute.
“I don’t know. Coke maybe. Or crystal. Probably crystal.”
Sure, why not? The meth factor could help account for certain things. Perhaps
even some of the tweaked anomie, the underclass, party-all-night vibe you got off those
snapshots from Abu Ghraib. Hajji can’t sleep. Hajji can’t dream. Fuck yeah.
January 21 – Le G. – Early Morning
Sometimes, most often mornings, a small thing – slant of sun on windowsill
plants, the green curtains hated yesterday, light passed through the water bottle to spill
across the bogus stain of wood-grained table top, the round of a chair edge, gloss of
fake rattan – suffuses you with hope. And the exhaust from the SUVs speeding down
Ninth, the vapor trails that criss-cross the frigid sky, fluttering tree-trapped plastic bag
shreds – all these visual hits sound as distinct chromatics, as if voices in an oratorio –
praising what – who knows? yet raising you from the dead. Let it. Let it.
Shana’s made an executive decision not to play music off the house iPod.
Instead she plugs in her own walkman. Ben Harper and Five Blind Boys. Between
customers, she bavardes with Mark at Table 10. Unusual to see him here on a Friday, but
he’s come to work on the piece he’ll bring into Writing X next Thursday when he makes
his debut. Slowly the café fills up: Peter, Leslie W., Melinda, a dorky-looking guy you
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don’t recall seeing before and soon after, the woman he’s come to meet. Not
conventionally pretty, but her mobile, responsive face impossible not to watch. She
lowers her head to sip from her café au lait, lets out an almost audible ah! That and her
bright red cardigan over a purple shirt. Hair pulled back into a careless pony tail, held
by a rubber band. Chinese features, though probably born here, or came when young
to judge from her talk and gestures. How is it possible to instantly feel an affinity with
someone who isn’t even aware that you exist?
Outside passes a thin woman pushing a stroller. Her breath emerges as gusts of
mist. Sharp eyebrows over direct, focused eyes. High cheekbones, medium brown
skin. Child’s bundled up behind a plastic curtain hung from the stroller canopy,
encapsulated like a pastry in a display case – they’re gone before you can register more
than that. Dylan chains up his bicycle at the parking meter. He’s lost for an instant
behind the curtains then enters through them, orange hair against their green, cheeks
crimson, nearly pop-eyed with cold. Soon afterward a burst of folks you don’t know.
Ben and the Blind Boys still at it, but there’s too much ambient noise and conversation
to hear the words. You get up and walk over, stand as close as you can to the speaker
mounted over the register near the ceiling. Comes the chorus: There will be a light.
Light will be and is right now. Causes steam off the surface of a tea bowl at
Table 2 to spiral upward in flickering, wispy shoots. And a smaller wisp, evanescent
white, plays like a candle’s flame above the teabag the drinker’s placed in her
Back to your table. Glance at the red-cardigan’d back leaning in toward the guy
who, from this angle, doesn’t seem so dorky. Face alive in its own way. Triggered by
her animation, or did you just not notice it before?
You can’t see it all, much less take it in and lay it down. Just can’t – fragments
only, else there’s nothing.
Is that Eric locking up his bike opposite Dylan’s? Tribeca’s a long ride on a day
like this. In through the curtain as Peter’s on his way out. On foot, after him comes
Little energy wasted on that sad, ugly show down in DC. Folks in the Republic
of New York all busy inaugurating us.
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