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- February 5 – Le G. – Early morning
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You made a deal with Katie’s Aunt Elva. If she made it to New Year’s Eve 2000,
you’d spend it with her. But she’s St. in Joseph’s now. No more garden apartment, nor
her big, beige Oldsmobile parked in the lot – the car you all drove to Niagara Falls and
back when she could walk – only a couple of years ago. On the return trip you’d
stopped at a farmstand to pick up fresh corn and tomatoes. Wegman’s supermarket for
whitehots. And for dessert, Elva knew the best donut stand in Rochester.
Now it’s nine-thirty on New Year’s Eve in Elva’s room. You’ve brought
champagne and herring in sour cream sauce, Elva’s favorite delicacy, and she’s had a
few bites of that. Gwen’s dozing in a chair. Elva says she’d just as soon go to sleep too,
so you wish her a happy New Year, promise to return in the morning, and drive to your
motel. You also promised Gwen you wouldn’t let her sleep through the big moment, so
as it approaches, you make a game effort to keep your word. Ten minutes before ball
drops you shake her gently, try to wake her. “Gwen – almost time!” No response. Try
another shake, accompanied by a louder “Gwen!” She half opens her eyes, closes them
again. Deep torpor. It’s the countdown now, so you roust her out of bed, march her
round the room while pointing to the TV – “Look! There’s Helsinki!” – as it cycles
through a panoply of local revels for the great event. Her lids barely open. You give
her a sip of champagne. She screws up her face. You and Katie shout “Happy 2000!” as
a roar arises from somewhere outside, followed the reports of fireworks. “Happy New
Year” you whisper as you tuck her back into bed.
• • •
This morning Gwen remembers nothing and is convinced you never woke her at
all. Weeps bitterly because she missed the whole thing – her inclination to believe you
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 68
territory. She could sleep through the Blitz.
Back to Elva to say goodbye. You’ve grown to love your adoptive aunt. And
admire her, not least for how she manages to stay sane in a nursing home. No idea how
she does it. Plus you owe her. When you and Katie were completely on your uppers
she sent a check for five grand, out of the blue. If not for Elva, you’d never have been
able to finish Divided We Stand. She’ll be remembered in many an Auld Lang Syne to
Putin’s military rings in the millennium by obliterating the city of Grozny.
Before and after aerial photos make it clear: not one stone stands atop another. These
city killers, how would they know their own power except by razing from a great
height what so many labored to build up out of the earth?
A call from an editor asking if you’d contribute to a book aimed at first-time
visitors, City Secrets: New York. You demur. Secrets? It’s been years since you lived
that kind of life. Well, she says, they don’t have to be real secrets, just things you think
are cool to do. Nice sounding gal. Why not?
Well, you gave it a go and it’s gone, off in a bottle.
Here’s where you begin: Mott Street, number 17. Walk down the
stairs to the basement restaurant called Wo Hop. If there’s a line, wait. It’s
Once you get a table, fortify yourself for your journey with the
world’s most tender won-tons and a sweet-hot bowl of Cantonese-style beef
with curried noodles topped with fiery tomato wedges. Your meal won’t
cost a lot, but careful! If you splash curry on your shirt, no known method
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 69
the Criminal Courts building. That’s why your dining companions are
cops, lawyers, guards, just-sprung defendants, bail bondsmen – and people
Ah, delicious! But the time has come to walk it off. So up the narrow
stairs, left turn onto Mott, then another left down the steep slope of Mosco
Street. A bit more zig-zagging and you’re in the Civic Center, where the
massive buildings chart a genealogy of public architecture from Pneumatic
Parthenon through Beaux Arts wedding cake and Mussolini Modern,
straight to faux Van der Rohe. Nearby was a swamp called the Collect
Pond, used way back when as a source of drinking water – not to mention
pestilence – and right here, buried beneath the grim blockhouse of the
Criminal Courts Building, lies the rubble of the Five Points slum, once the
city’s most infamous crossroads of poverty and crime.
As you walk west on Chambers Street, loop south of the Tweed
Court House and check the rear wall of City Hall. As a corrective to the
extravagance of using white marble on the other three sides, the city fathers
had it faced in brownstone. Who would’ve thought in 1812 that New York
would expand so far to the north that folks would routinely see it from
behind? Now wend your way through City Hall Park. On your right’s the
Woolworth Building and just to the south, St. Paul’s Chapel, Manhattan’s
oldest building, with the twin towers of the World Trade Center looming
Let your feet carry you down Broadway allowing for leisurely
excursions off its backbone and into the canyons of high finance. But keep
bearing south and suddenly Battery Park will open out before you and
beyond it, New York’s harbor, once, only a generation gone, the greatest
port in the world. At the southeast corner of the park, your next departure
point: the Staten Island Ferry terminal.
There’s almost always a ferry leaving soon, so you won’t have to
wait long. Hop aboard – only 50¢ each way – there’s the horn blast –
already you’re pulling away from shore. Now if you station yourself at the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 70
waves are choppy, the spray will leap up and mist your face as the ferry
chugs across the harbor.
Look, a big piece of flotsam – no, it’s a man paddling a kayak! And
over there, beneath the Verrazano Bridge, the superships are lined up, some
waiting to be piloted into the port of Newark-Elizabeth, New Jersey, others
bound out into the Atlantic. To your right the Statue of Liberty, and beyond
her, Ellis Island. Buoys clang, and everywhere the sky is laced with gulls.
When you debark in Staten Island you can spend however long you
like exploring its museums, colonial restorations, parks, golf courses, riding
stables and marveling at the scale of New York City’s dump, Fresh Kills, a
mound so huge that, like the Pyramids of El Gîzeh, it is visible from space.
But whenever you head back on the ferry, you’ll see the massed skyscrapers
of Lower Manhattan approach sedately, rising before you in an unfolding
welcome that cannot be described – it must be felt with wind in your face
and the harbor water rushing rumbling across the hull bottom a few feet
Suddenly, near silence. They’ve cut the engines. Now comes the
drama of docking in the tricky currents. No matter how experienced the
pilot, the ferry nearly always bumps up against the timber slip walls
sending up creaks of protest from the well-greased planks. Unflappable,
the gulls, perched atop mossy pilings, look on. A clank of chains, the iron
walkway descends and back onto terra firma you go. Don’t worry if it takes
a few moments to get used to ground beneath your feet again.
Arriving by water on this shore is an essential rite of passage.
Wherever you go from here, part of you carries on as a New Yorker now.
wonderful word anusaowaree, literally “monument” – by which the Thais mean an
unfinished skyscraper. The Bangkok World Trade Center’s one of their tallest: sixty-
three stories and no one home.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 71
February 14 – Le G. – Midmorning
Surgical modifications to the face at Table 11? White-olive skin. Exquisite
arched eyebrows. Immense doe-like eyes. So far, it could be nature. But lips like a
duck? Day by day, it’s a Todd Browning world after all.
Exhibit on Roman Egypt. Mummy portraits in encaustic, their gazes almost
breathtakingly direct. Regardless of the artist’s technical skill, each face possesses an
immediacy, a look of here and now – a stronger sense of human presence than you pick
up these days from your fellow subway riders.
In another display, models of houses in two distinct types: peristyle, with
columned porticoes on one or more sides and built around an open courtyard. The
other, a multi-storied “tower” house. Both forms, it seems, coexisted side by side.
This was an incredibly syncretic culture. In its artifacts you read a nearly New
York-like convergence, and evidence of a vast export of Isis-worship to the Roman
world. One statuette in particular makes you do a double take, so strange and familiar
all at once. Isis-Aphrodite holds the infant Horus in her lap. There before you, the
gesture avant la lettre, detached in time and place, the prototype of a medieval Virgin
and Child. Over and over you learn the primal lesson. Everything comes from
Occasional blips of life emanate from within the black hole Divided We Stand
vanished into. On the recommendation of someone at the Voice, a community activist
called to ask if you would speak at a rally opposing the new student mega-center NYU
wants to build just across West 3rd Street from Washington Square Park.
Felt weird even as you said yes, this return – rousing the rabble a stone’s throw
from where you grew up, in the same park where Bea had snapped you wearing only
your diaper, soaked and filthy-happy in the fountain’s spray. You’d peeked through
the hoardings as they put up the Loeb Center, watched them pump Minetta Spring for
over a year to get a dry foundation, watched generations of rats and ratlings use the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 72
order for this immense beige monstrosity to block sunlight across a wide swath of the
park. Standard NYU operating procedure: architecture with just enough vain detail to
show true mediocrity. And their tactics, so typical of the new post-public New York,
where developers of any stripe behave like feudal lords, which, in a sense, they’ve
become, now that the age of the master-builder is gone.
Rally day came round and you stood in the crowd with Katie, Gwen and some
visiting friends and their kids, good sports, who, like scores of others held black
umbrellas aloft on a clear afternoon to simulate the shape of the threatened shadow.
Your turn at the mike. Can you hear me? Affirmative shouts. Alright. And you slipped
into whup-’em-up agitator mode, just like the Crazie days. Something like a Huzzah!
washed back from the assembled multitude and your adrenaline cranked. You
dropped your voice down, slowed your breath, sank into the cadences.
punch the “no” and raise another Huzzah!
Last thing I’m going to say is that compared to Robert Moses, this guy’s a putz – a
lightweight. Forty years ago, this community stopped the Master Builder’s highway. We can
stop this thing today! Huzzah! Huzzah!
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 73
You handed the mike to the next speaker, a good-natured Democratic pol, who
thanked you for your impassioned words and then proceeded to weave a veil of
amelioration so soporific that you nearly fell into a doze. When you looked out into the
crowd for Katie, you found her in the middle of a yawn. So you discreetly left the stage,
gathered your little party and trooped over to Gwen’s favorite playground, the multi-
colored tubular labyrinth adjacent to the McDonalds on West 3rd just off Sixth. At least
the Village had enough Moxie, or clout, to squeeze a genuine amenity out of the burger
You and Katie sat on a bench, held hands and watched Gwen and young
Brendan vanish and – just when you began to worry they’d gotten stuck inside –
emerge from the serpentine tunnel. Katie remarked that your hand was freezing cold
and you realized she was right. Colder than the March chill. Every time a kid popped
out of the tube, you felt a rumble in your innards. It took another quarter hour for your
brain to do the math and conclude that you were truly sick, fever spiking, everything
inside you turning fluid and all fluids petitioning for release. You made for the subway
fast, where, grace à Dieu, an uptown C Train was just pulling in.
Two days gone and you’re getting your sea legs again. And you wonder, was it
an opportunistic bug, or was there something about giving that rap, that rave, actually,
that whacked you out, knocked you so far off center that the only thing your body
could do to restore the balance was take you down? One way or another, your fervor,
when it slips its lead, turns to fever, takes its toll. Yes, the Kimmel Center is an awful
building. Oughtn’t happen. But why are you so desperate? To save what?
Relapse. Keep to your book. Feel stronger. Read Benjamin’s Moscow Diary:
One only knows a spot once one has experienced it in as many dimensions as possible.
You have to have approached a place from all four cardinal points if you want to take it in, and
what’s more, you also have to have left it from all these points. Otherwise, it will quite
unexpectedly cross your path three or four times before you are prepared to discover it.
That’s a hell of a metaphor for what you just went through. Nothing kicks your
ass as bad as the things you think you’ve resolved. Been there, yes. But done that? Not
quite. Or perhaps it’s that the that isn’t done with you.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 74
Lovely bit of language in the minutiae of your research. A journalist covering
the Panic of 1857 describes Wall Street as “blue with collapse.”
Frank’s currant scones improve with every batch you taste, and they were good
to begin with. He asks what you’re working on now, and you tell it as best you can.
He looks skeptical. “A diary,” he says, “is a form of primitive self-analysis – a
wailing wall. A journal is a point of observation.”
Up betimes to teach journaling to sixth graders from a Bronx middle school
taking special classes at the Maritime Academy at old Fort Schuyler. What’s the canal
or creek the el’s passing over? Wish you’d brought your map. Rail line running beside
it. Incredible ruined railroad building perched over the tracks, terra cotta tiles falling
off the peekaboo roof. Bronx River. Dam across it. You might’ve passed along some of
these streets long ago driving a cab, but today it looks all new. Down the steps into
terra incognita. Catch a car service and ride way east.
Out at the fort the kids are waiting. You give your rap in the classroom, show
them how you color code the page corners of your red and black Chinese books –
purple for urban, blue for technology, pink for cultural nuggets, green for Utopias –
paste in little signifying bits of paper, press leaves, insert postcards. But you don’t
spend long on that. Spring’s seeping through the windows, so everyone – teacher and
assistants included – goes outside to sense the day, disperse around the grounds and
put paper and pen in the way of whatever words offer themselves from the atmosphere.
You sit facing the water, back against a tree. Nearby, up on the Throgg’s Neck Bridge, a
truck mixing a load of cement heads toward the Bronx. Whine of its engine cuts above
waves of car tires on the roadbed. Closer still, just below the concrete balustrade, slaps
real water. Over west, the angle of a jet taking off from La Guardia mimics the sweep of
the cables on the Bronx Whitestone bridge.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 75
Turn around to look at the fort ten yards or so behind you – on this side, a
vertical curtain of ivy. If your sightline didn’t include the perpendicular wall, you
could easily imagine the ivy to be a freestanding curtain. Even so, it’s hard to believe
that real stone and mortar lie behind that density of green.
Turn back to the Throgg’s Neck. Elegant lines of steelwork, but it could use a
scraping and a coat of paint. Aunt Maisie says that back in the Depression, Uncle Joe
had a steady job in a work relief crew painting the George Washington Bridge. Not the
ideal gig for a man with acrophobia. Dartons and infrastructure. Grandfather Arthur,
ventilation contractor for the Holland Tunnel. You think of him every time you pass by
Canal Street and see those aerating towers just at the water’s edge on each side of the
Hudson. What was it like, laboring under the river on a project no one was entirely
sure would work? Once, so the story goes, water pressure ruptured the section he was
working in and up he popped to the surface – amazingly unharmed.
While all this flows through your head you’ve been staring toward the southwest
trying to figure out what those two small boxy buildings are, one with an antenna
sticking out the top. Looks like a tiny suburban office park. But why build it up there,
on that ridge? Finally the beautiful illusion comes home to you – how foolish the eye!
Those buildings aren’t in Queens at all, and they certainly aren’t little – they’re the tops
of the trade center towers.
Walk over to the balustrade and look over at the Sound’s edge. Below, dark gray
cubical stone blocks form a kind of breakwater, shiny black where wet. The pathway
crunches. Pulverized shells. Out there, ducks and a buoy.
Back in the classroom to hear, read aloud, what was gathered in those moments.
Each student saw and recorded an entirely distinct range of sensations, with occasional
specifics in common. Yet all had been able to record at least one sensation vividly and
with a texture of truth.
Head home. Take your time. In the stairwell of the Westchester Square #6
elevated train station, a stained glass triptych by Romare Bearden. Late afternoon sun
filtering through, oblique enough to throw sumptuous colors up the walls and columns
on this side. Untitled.
May 15 – Noontime
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 76
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