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- August 1 – Vienne, France
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Oltrarno. Chiesa di Santo Spirito. Wherein for the first time you see Counter-
Reformation images possessed of real rhetorical power: Cristo e l’adultera, painted by
Alessandro Allori in 1577. Here too, his i santi martiri, a fantastic time-telescoping
pastiche of nearly nude bodies, all male, captured at the point of extremis – each visage
ecstatic despite, or perhaps because of its singular torment. Martyrdom as rhapsody,
wrought as tenderly as its companion piece, the Savior pardoning the fallen woman.
Above, an incredible trompe l’oeil ceiling composed of octagonal coffers with
rosettes sprouting from their centers. You could stare up at them all day and all night,
and the light would still be coming from the east.
• • •
Climb up to San Minioto. You wander about the church in as close to a state of
grace as a materialist gets, Stendahled out by the volumes and materials of this place.
Emerging out into the terrace in late afternoon light, you find Gwen by the balustrade,
near tears, the book, which she’s carried like a breviary, closed in her hands.
“What is it?”
She shakes her head. Then it hits you. Of course, Dumbledore’s dead.
“How did you know?” she asks.
“I didn’t know. But even in the last book, Rowling was leading up to this – to the
point where Harry has to face Voldemort on his own.”
From walled Lucca, toward the Ligurian coast and along it you go: Pisa,
Livorno, and Viareggio, where the three of you put your feet in the Mediterranean,
Katie and Gwen for the first time. Then La Spezia, and finally by winding degrees into
Corniglia. From your window, terraced slopes covered in grapevines vee down
to meet the breaking waves. Midway between land and horizon, set against a sea
whose blue only this particular atmosphere could conjure, a triangle composed of three
small craft, nearly identical at this distance, each rigged with a triangular sail. Despite
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 669
their wakes, the boats seem to stand motionless, as if to demonstrate a mystic ratio –
some rare geometry inferred by their relation.
Genoa is a tough town. But more than that, a place where parallel universes
occupy adjacent spaces even more radically than in New York. A middle-class-looking
mom sits watching her kid run about the square while on the next bench down, a
painfully thin woman in tattered clothes, a sad-looking dog lying at her feet, scratches
the scabs on her leg.
Relentless waves of cars and scooters roar through the Galleria Garibaldi into the
Piazza del Portello then plunge back under the hill into the Galleria Nino Bixio, while a
few meters away the parallel street is strangely quiet – closed to all but foot traffic. On
Via Maddelena, a storefront devoted to telephone cabins catering to Senegalese calling
home stands next to an unabashedly posh artisinal pottery shop. A reeking dumpster
sits close by the door of a swank home furnishing boutique. On a wall not far from the
sleek new aquarium, a huge and crudely-scrawled graffito: Che Viva Palestina! NY 9-11.
The pigeons too are different from their Gotham cousins. Slightly smaller and
even scruffier, they simply won’t move out of a biped’s way. One has to go around
them. They peck for crumbs between paving stones, but not eagerly. Most of the time
they stand still or walk about with unhurried gaits, self-possessed, heads cocked
slightly, staring off into the middle distance, seemingly indifferent to the huge creatures
passing so close by, entirely focused on their own interests and society.
It’s catching this pigeon attitude. You neglected to take a card or napkin, and
have already forgotten the name of the caffè where this morning you had the best – the
hands-down best – espresso in Christendom.
A very thin young Japanese man with hair dyed a kind of dusky red has been
stalking you, or you him. You first encountered Amemony, for that turns out to be,
phonetically at any rate, his name, on the funicular up to the panorama Rhigi which
overlooks the city. Like you, Amemony wandered about taking in the view, but must
have caught a later car down or else walked, since you didn’t see him on the return trip.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 670
midst of eating a sumptuous meal. Another meeting in a place quite off the beaten
path. This time you nodded at one another and smiled.
Comes this morning and he chooses the same spot on the platform on the
Stazione Principe to wait for the train to Nice. Now you shake hands and introduce
yourselves. His English limited, your Japanese nil. From Nice, he travels to Marseille,
then to Barcelona, while you head north along the eastern edge of France. But having
crossed paths three times in two days, who knows when you’ll meet again?
Morning café in a little bar in Dinge les Bains. Playing on the muted TV, a music
video: close-ups of a five-o’clock-shadowed male singer intercut with shots of a
lithesome blonde, more naked than not (Shakira?) writhing on her back, belly pulsing
concave-convex so fast you almost blink in time to it, all her available skin smeared
with a dark, viscous substance resembling crude oil.
• • •
Midday stop in Sisteron. Once upon a time, the little garrison in this fortress on a
mountain pass through which the Durance flows might have halted Napoleon’s ragged
little company on its northward march, post-Elba. But the commander, though he had
the tactical upper hand, thought twice and allowed the Emperor to take his right of
Cloudburst. In the carpark, your vehicle, and those around it, splashed with
mud, as though giants had been playing at mixing muck and flinging it around a giant
sandbox. A local explains: This is Saharan sand, Africa sucked up in one place, and set
down in another, carried on the back of powerful south wind.
Dream in which a figure who physically resembles a close friend has set you up
to do a very profitable deal in Iran, involving a kind of bin Ladenish character who also
resembles Pepé, a wiry, energetic guy you used to know on the Lower East Side. While
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 671
in Iran, you decide to back out of the deal, which turns out to be about arms, something
you mention to Katie, who is there also. Your friend looks very stricken that you’ve
told her. You make a brave, declaratory statement in front of the shadowy bin Laden-
looking fellow who either leaves the scene or you do, whereupon your friend, who’s the
only person you can (more or less) trust in this alien world, suggests you give up all
rights to the deal to avoid being arrested. The implication is that the bin Laden figure
needs to be appeased or else he’ll pull strings with the officials to make sure you’re
locked up and the key thrown away. Your buddy also suggests that the jails are pretty
appalling. You decide to take his advice and concede, though a nagging in your guts
says you might have bluffed it out. Still, there’s Gwen to consider, Katie too, and for
your part the prospect of incarceration doesn’t appeal – though it’s not the strongest
factor in your dream reason.
It occurs to you that your friend could be an agent of the bL-ish guy and the
wider forces he represents. Either way, he seems to have been somehow compromised
by what you’ve done, and fearful too. On the other hand, he may be looking out for
what he believes to be your best interests as well.
Back in New York, you invite your aunt Gladys downtown to take her to dinner.
When she arrives, walking with some effort and the aid of a cane, you realize that you
should have gone uptown to meet her, but she seems cool with the arrangement.
You’re puzzled as to where to eat. Somehow economics plays a part here. You
consider several good burger places, and one over near NYU, close to Pane e cioccolato.
In a previous, or succeeding part of the dream, you’re with someone who is clearly Bea
and you say to her, several times, in variations on the same statement: “You’re a good
mommy.” She appears pleased, but doesn’t seem to need the reassurance.
Odd place Grenoble. Just outside the door to your hotel, a middle-aged woman
with brightly-dyed red hair walks two dogs, a black bull hybrid and a shaggy
something or other. Her sandals sound a flac-flac on the pavement as the dogs pull her
toward you. Black stretch pants, black tee, big white caps across the latter: SEE PARIS
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 672
the sidewalks and boulevards too wide, as though it collapsed, supine and spread-
eagled in awe before the serious mountains that, at a distance, surround it. No
apparent center to Grenoble, nor true medieval quarter. Normally one welcomes
pedestrian zones, but here there are so many of them it feels like an effort to shunt
people into shopping streets so the town won’t seem completely deserted.
True, at night the squares and cafés are filled, mostly with young folk. But turn a
corner and the streets go quiet, all shuttered shops and no action. Nary a motor bike’s
buzz to fill the sonic void. Only occasionally, on a wider artery nearby, the low rumble
of the tram, well-kept and of recent vintage, but ghostly as it passes, nearly empty.
Surely there must be a substantial population here. But where is it hiding? An
awful lot of the city seems to be made up of largish 19th century residential buildings
more or less five stories plus ateliers. These structures are colored in varying shades of
gray, decorated with a variety of fussy ornamentation. Their sole poetry manifests in
slender, stately brick chimneys that emerge from black slate rooves and finish off in
multiple round flues. Windows are of good height and fronted by narrow balconies
with delicate iron railings. Across the tops of the windows, affixed to the lintels, lacy
bands of iron trim painted white or off-white look like stylized curtain valences worn
on the outside.
Peculiar too how even in this spacious fountained square, dotted with floral
plantings, no pigeons to be seen. Plenty of trees, yet rarely does one hear a bird. Ah,
you were wrong. No alarm you could detect, but a flock of pigeons swoops across the
square over the fountain. But they scarcely make a noise, all those beating wings. You
decide here and now, that Grenoble is a silent movie, overdubbed with a subtle, nearly
Katie and Gwen sit at the far end of the square, drawing. You station yourself at
an outside café table with good sightlines. From your various angles, you all focus on a
remarkably well-preserved temple built by the Romans in the 1st century BC. During
the Revolution, the Jacobins appropriated the building as their headquarters,
worshipping as they did the great goddess Reason.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 673
Traboules. These are building vestibules that turn into passageways which give
onto courtyards, then turn back into passageways and again to vestibules. The
traboules trace a path from one house to another, sometimes among several discreet
buildings, from one street onto the next.
Two nights in Dijon. Exquisite center city, cosmopolitan and utterly unto itself,
shades gracefully into the surrounding ville. Trams. Bicycles aplenty. Could you live
here a year or two? Sure, why not?
In the Musée des Beaux Arts, at the center of a room devoted to 18th century
paintings, marble busts and furniture, a contemporary sculpture by a Burgundian artist
named Didier Marcel. It’s a model, executed in painstaking detail and seemingly to
exact scale, of a semi-demolished factory building. Roughly a meter long by half a
meter deep, the piece rotates on a motorized table at a speed that seems calculated to
impart a sense that all is fugitive. For an instant you focus on a detail, then it’s gone. If
you move to keep pace with the sculpture’s turning, you end up chasing a fragment of
it and lose the shape of the whole. Keep still and whatever caught your attention will
cycle round again. But in the interim you’ve moved, or the lighting through the
windows has changed – in any case something’s subtly different. The trick is to let your
eye alight on whatever particularity it chooses: the remnants of a sign clinging to a
punched-through wall, torn-out ventilation ducts, electrical conduits hanging down like
the branches of a willow. Then let go.
• • •
As always, wherever you walk, you read the walls – surface textures, graffiti,
posters and plaques – which is how you discover that Dijon is planning a grand festival,
complete with fireworks for the day it was liberated: September 11, 1944.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 674
Evening, and rue Pernety continues on past sunset bathed the glow that comes of
being eight degrees north of New York. It’s just too smoky inside, so the three of you sit
at a sidewalk table, order entrecôte and frites. A man, fairly tall and of medium
complexion approaches, walking an odd little gray dog. You nod to one another and as
he passes your table to enter the café, he wishes you Guten Appetite. Ah, he thinks
you’re German. Too late, he’s already inside, but into your head pops the sentence:
But then you get caught up in your dinner and conversation, and it’s only by chance
that you turn and spot him, already halfway down the block. You call out Bonne soirée!
and he turns, walks back toward your table with the strange wee dog trotting beside
about the joys of travel and the fascinating variety of places one may visit on this planet.
He says, or you think he says, that he’s Mexican and has spent much time in Morocco.
But you suspect the equation may be the other way around, or altogether fictitious. He
speaks glowingly of Chicago, but you can’t tell whether he’s lived there, or just loves it
as a concept. And he’s full of good humor, rolling the r’s in perro like a proper Castilian.
Then off he goes into the night, and truly you’ve learned nothing about him at all.
Other than that he’s got a strange energy to him, like some sort of savant.
You order dessert. It has just arrived when you feel a tap on your shoulder. It’s
the Mexican-Moroccan-Chicagoan, sans his dog this time, and bearing a white plastic
bag which he thrusts it into your hands. “For the United States. You take this.”
You hesitate and he reads your confusion – reaches down and pulls the bag open
to reveal a beautifully crafted replica of a flintlock pistol – the sort one associates with
duelists of the 18th century. “Monsieur –“ you begin, but you get nothing more out
before he reaches into the bag, and cocks the flint. Instinctively, though you know the
gun is not real, you shift your leg away from the mouth of the barrel. He pulls the
trigger. Click. “For you!” his tone insistent – and he’s off down the block. You’re
literally holding the bag.
Look up and around. Ever since you sat down, these two North African fellows
at the bar have been casting speculative glances at your little family, and now they peer
intently, trying to figure out what has just gone down. Katie flashes them a smile.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 675
Gwen looks to you for an explanation, but there’s nothing you can say. You’re laughing
– uncontrollably – for the first time in years.
In the chapel of Saint Benoît-le-Bétourné you come across these words by Villon
– aka François de Montcorbier, aka François Des Loges – allegedly written as he
Fellow humans who live after us
Don’t harden your hearts against us…
• • •
At a temporary café set up along Paris Plage, a one-man band croons “You Talk
Too Much” in lounge-French. With his right hand he plays a melody on a mini-
keyboard while the left presses the buttons of an accordion. His left foot works the high
hat and his right, the kick drum. Occasionally he’ll leave off the keys and blow a phrase
on trumpet or trombone. Strangely, it all works, clean and smooth. A young waiter
bearing a tray passes by. His teeshirt reads: HOMEFUCKING IS KILLING
PROSTITUTION! Applause for the finish of the tune. The one-man band swings into a
“It’s Now or Never” in sincere, yet absolutely tongue-in-cheek faux americaine.
• • •
You’re standing in front of a building on Rue Valette reading a plaque about Le
Tour de Calvin when a considerate fellow opens the door and beckons you inside the
courtyard to have a look. There, way up high, is the garret, where Cauvin, the future
theologian lived in his student days, overhanging the walls on curved-out timbers. Did
Paris change him, confirm his rigidity? What did this city do to Uncle Ho? Here, in
1917, he ran an ad under one of his aliases: “You who wish to have a living
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 676
remembrance of your parents, have your photographs retouched at Nguyen Ai Quoc’s,
9 Impasse Compoint, Paris 17th District.”
Tea at the Institut du Monde Arabe, then bookstore. Flip open a volume in
English on the first Cordoban Caliph wherein you read that ‘Abd al-rahman III, who
reigned in al-Andalus from 912 to 961 “kept a daily written record for forty-nine years.
It revealed, after his death that he had had only fourteen days of happiness. He did not
say which ones.”
• • •
Encoded into your physical memory but inaccessible now, the sensations of a
person with long hair.
• • •
Typeset in white letters across the mirrored glass above the men’s toilet at Café
les Philosophes: Que doit-je faire? (What must I do?) Something to contemplate with
one’s dick in one’s hand. On the mirror over the sink: Je doute. (I doubt.) Go on, rap on
the metal door, see if anyone’s in the women’s WC. Empty. Inside it says: Que m’est-il
Katie’s big five-oh. Picnic in the Versailles gardens finished with sorbet
biologique from a stand set up outside of Marie Antoinette’s arcadian fantasy village.
Dinner at Le Petit Pointoise, commencing with foie gras with figs. Home to Levent’s for
birthday cake from Dalloyau served on the blue ceramic plate you bought her in
Beaune. Coffee on the little stovetop espresso maker.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 677
Bastille to the park at Reuilly. There, you find a spot in the grass, half sun, half shade,
and Katie and Gwen commence to drawing. You, you’re that human windmill,
shadowed dark on the greensward, warming up to Ba Gua. Single palm changes. Ten
of them, walking in a circle. How long have you been practicing these meditations?
Just over a year now, barely a beginning. One step in front of the other. First one way
round, then the other. But your eyes stay on the center, or at least that’s what you try
tomorrow for the way you’re pushing it, despite how expansive the movements feel
now. Downward Pressing Palm. Embracing Moon Palm. White Ape Offers Fruit. Touching
Heaven and Penetrating Earth. How long it takes for an image to become concrete. And
then it drifts away again.
Last round. Millstone Pushing Palm. Also called Green Dragon. Or Looking
Through the Tiger’s Eye.
Finally Amiens. One of those places you’ve walked through in your mind and
now your legs fulfill the connection.
Best restaurant in Christendom: Le Bouchon. But what’s wrong with this
picture? Only two tables being served the whole evening, one of them yours.
Then back to the cathedral en seul for the sound and light show. Katie and Gwen
stay at the hotel, too stuffed and knocked out to stagger the extra few blocks. The
show’s already going when you arrive so you pick your way among the people sitting
in the square, trying not to block their views or step on ‘em. Ah, here’s a vacant patch
of paving. Don’t know how they do these feats of light, technology can’t account for the
seamless way the whole façade suffuses – as though it isn’t made of stone but rather
some substance hovering between stained glass and the clays of Gay Head turned the
blue and red of unearthly Jerusalem. And then there are the lights from within pouring
out the windows. Cathedral as magic lantern.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 678
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