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- May 16 – Le G. – Early Morning
- May 23 – Smiler’s Deli, Fifth Avenue, Between 44th 45th
- May 24 – Midmorning
- June 13 – Rockefeller Center – Midmorning
- June 24 – Midday
- June 25 – Horatio Street – Midafternoon
- July 20 – Battery Park City Esplanade – The Gloaming
Gloria mentioned you to an editor at Wired magazine who in turn invited you to
lunch. Just say yes. Not least because it gets you up inside the Condé Nast tower,
scariest building in Teema Squara. Pass through the gaping, massively securitized lobby
– you and the others so much plankton in its jaws.
The elevator – of the leave-your-stomach-behind variety – deposits you at the
entrance to the critically hyped cafeteria, designed in the same terror-chic as lobby and
exterior. Blond wood veneer and brushed metal surfaces, great sheets of bracketed,
pinned and tortured glass. On the other hand, you don’t get striped bass for lunch
every day. Delicious and perfectly done. But the grilled asparagus and potatoes are
only as good as they have to be.
The editor seems a decent sort. There’s goodwill certainly, but a robust volley of
conversation never seems to take hold. She greets your mention, in passing, of the
inevitable pop of the dot-com bubble with a quizzical look, as though no possible reality
could admit of such a thing. Undeterred, you press on, pitch an idea for a longish piece,
perhaps two parts, on the evolution of digital culture – drawn from material you
developed and taught at Hunter. She doesn’t sweep the plates off the table and dance a
Kazatsky, but the energy level of the conversation begins to hum a little higher. She’ll
run it by her boss. You talk parenting for a bit, and thus passes a classic New York
lunch: trial balloons abob in an otherwise awkward mid-day void. Waiting at the
elevator bank, you watch her disappear behind the glass doors of the nanoculture
fanzine – doors that are, in actuality, no different from ten thousand other portals into
middle-level day-gigs dull as ditchwater. What’s wrong with this picture? As the
elevator opens, you imagine her avatar rushing past, hair disarranged, high color in her
cheeks, the lunch hour flown in the arms of her lover.
Rocketing down in the elevator you realize that superconductivity will be
achieved long before you write a word for Wired. But who knows, perhaps after the
bubble pops, there’ll be a tiny window of self-reflection. Strange optimism as you walk
away. It’s possible too that this awful building will transform its signification, outlive
its coercive phase, and, like an empty suit of armor standing cobwebbed in the castle
hall, testify quaintly to a nearly-forgotten dark age.
May 16 – Le G. – Early Morning
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 77
Read all about it – a porcelain sculpture by Jeff Koons, Woman in Tub goes for
$1.7 million at Christie’s. The artist has sliced off the top two thirds of her head, but left
her signifying mouth agape. Eyeless, she discovers by other senses the snorkel head
that pops up between her legs. We who see have a good laugh at her expense, since the
object of Koons’s humor isn’t us.
Still who’s the joke on, really? Surely not the bather alone. The plug’s been
pulled – a billion Nasdaq bubbles wash down the drain. Just like that. And what slick
creature rushes upward toward the light, yearning to breathe free?
Funny, back in the sixties, you always used to call these delis “frowners,”
because the guys who worked there were so uniformly surly. But there’s no predicting
anything for certain now. Besides the early morning breakfast rush hour. Grab a tray
and get in line. The short order cook’s a truly immense fellow. Lots of large-scale
people in this town, but rarely have you seen so much lean human mass packed into
one skin. The white cap cocked slightly to one side his head looks as if it was made for
a doll. Lively eyes, intelligent, impenetrable. Running down one cheek, a scar, its
keloids the width of your little finger. Genial disposition, great economy of movement.
When he turns to take an order, he asks every male customer, regardless of size, the
same question: “What can I get you, big man?”
Fortified by an egg sandwich on a roll and coffee, you’re on your way up and
across town. Today for some reason, you sense, more strongly than ever before, the
toxic vibe emanating from 47th Street. Turn to walk along it toward Sixth and the
atmosphere becomes overpoweringly oppressive. Something about hoarding. About
diamonds jammed up the ass. Withholding. A breath of fresh air as you cross and head
into Tin Pan Alley.
School’s off, so uptown with Gwen to the new Planetarium – a.k.a. The Rose
Center. You’ve been trying to teach her the sequence of subway stops on the IND line
for years, quizzing her each time you take the C, E or A Trains, but she’s profoundly
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 78
Street, she invented a mnemonic: Ladies First.
Of everything to see, she’s most fascinated by the movie about black holes,
described in sonorous voiceover as “the ultimate triumph of gravity over light.” Sitting
side by side on the bench, you draw ever closer to the event horizon, traverse the rim
and, in a flash, collapse into infinite density. Three times over. Then, out of the theatre
and into the big glass box where you walk the spiral of time since the universe began
and note the filament’s-width that accounts for all human history. If that doesn’t work
up an appetite, nothing will, so over to the Central Park West entrance to find a hot dog
stand. Eat on the steps, in the granite embrace of the main entrance. Gwen feeds bits of
bun to the foregathered pigeons. No matter how many of them crowd round, there’s
nearly always one perched on Teddy Roosevelt’s bronze head. Perhaps it’s a time-
honored tradition, and they draw lots for who stands guard.
At the entrance to the park, ice cream, and next… a running start then
scrambling up the rocks, handhold after handhold – find the cracks for your sandal toes
– all the way to the top!
Fanfare-less, the big five-O sneaks up, pounces, and pads away silently on little
cat feet. What feels worth celebrating is less your cumulative decades on planet Earth
than an incremental tendency toward some species of happiness. Little by little, things
fall together for you. As if by gravity.
On your way here you paused to watch the demolition of a row of John D.-era
townhouses in preparation for sinking a skyscraper foundation. Only three of the old
brownstones left standing, utterly benighted. Ah, well, they’ve got a diorama model in
the Brooklyn Museum.
A picket line has been set up in front of MoMA and as you approach the striking
workers start up a chant and raise high their placards: blown-up stills of Sally Field as
Norma Rae. Got to be tongue in cheek, right? No, you’re not museum-going today and
in any case it’s against your religion to cross a picket line. You’re just here to browse
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 79
eye: two tiger-striped kittens each perched atop a WTC tower. You buy it from a
smiling Korean woman. Five bucks. Already matted. How could it be so cheap? Sit
down on a bench on the Promenade and give it a closer look. Aha! – there’s the dot
pattern. You bought a photocopy, not an original after all.
Unlike the one-of-a-kind kitsch masterpiece across the skating rink, looming in
front of the RCA Building. Nothing naïve here, this is calculated cuteness on a
monumental scale: Jeff Koons’s topiary puppy dog, three stories high, sits expectantly,
sprouting thousands of tiny multi-colored blossoms from its green, leafy coat. Tourists
surround Puppy, staring up in wonder. Dads pose their wives and kids at its feet then
step back, and back, and back. Intentional or not, part of the joke is that if you fit
enough of Puppy in the frame to read it as a dog, your family’s reduced to anonymous
conceived, it somehow projects authentic dog-nature. Easy to imagine that at any
moment it might scratch behind its ear with a hind paw, stand up on all fours and give
itself a shake. What would Puppy make of the World Trade Center – twin fireplugs?
Which tower would he whiz on first? Sitting in their shadow, Puppy would bring out,
more clearly than King Kong’s aggression ever could, the contradictions crushed
together to extrude these buildings. Puppy’s an innocent, like a floral Siegfried; he
doesn’t yet know enough to fear.
• • •
The Dialectic of Seeing again and find a tasty morsel – a quote from Alfred
Döblin: “New York is a city without memorials.” According to Susan Buck-Morss, the
book’s author, Walter Benjamin considered the absence of memorials a criterion for a
modern city. If that’s so, we ain’t modern any more, particularly downtown. WTC
bombing, Holocaust, potato famine, shipwreck, African burial ground. Wherever you
wander, memorials “r” us.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 80
A gridlock moment at Le Gamin: two women, both great with child meet for
lunch, take seats across from one another at Table 15. Gradually, as they’re eating, the
tables around them fill up. By the time the women are ready to leave, there’s no room
to push their chairs back. Nor can they turn round, they’re hemmed in on the sides too.
Caught up in their own ingestion and palaver, none of their neighbors pays them any
mind. For that matter, neither of the women takes it upon herself to say “excuse me.”
You watch as their bemusement shades into annoyance, verges on panic. Just as you
begin to move to their aid, a young fellow at Table 14 registers their predicament.
Accordingly, he stands up, steps into the aisle. Chairs and tables are shifted around
and as if by magic, the Chinese puzzle unlocks. The women extricate themselves and
make their way out the door, maneuver into a kind of sidelong hug, and take their leave
in a lighthearted way. Two people waiting inside the door sit down at Table 15 as
Roberto clears it and the café reconfigures itself again. What a city, what a delicate
balance of spatialities!
Elizabeth and Jonathan host a party for Divided at their townhouse across the
street and just west of Frank’s place. A grand gesture, and particularly lovely of them
to do it now, a half year after publication, and with the book all but dropped from view.
Hot, muggy day, more like late August than imagined June. The living room’s cool, but
the crowd spills out into the garden.
Elizabeth’s idea to serve all sorts of vertical food. Accordingly Eric B. baked a
special edition of biscuits, roughly three inches square, cunningly imprinted with your
favorite image from the book: two street performers costumed as twin towers holding
hands in the plaza beneath their steel and concrete brethren. You and Eric stack twin
columns a hundred and ten cookies high. In the course of the afternoon, the partygoers
eat their way down to the ground.
How does the great imperial city, mostly offshore, spend its energies of a
summer? What to say, what to say? Well, we’ve never had a Cow Parade before.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 81
the “parade” in any sense a procession. Rather what we’ve got is a five hundred head
of life-size, hollow, fiberglass cows, painted according to whimsical themes and
strategically positioned at tourist hotspots. Thus Wall Street is graced with a stock-
ticker cow, a spattered “Jackson Pollack” cow stands in front of MoMA. A Mostly
Mozart cow ruminates near the Lincoln Center fountain while twin Holsteins graze the
World Trade Center plaza. By some process of symbiotic magnetism, each cow attracts
a herd of camcorder-wielding bipeds – so bovine in their affect as to make you wonder
if the transgenic future is already here.
Customarily you take evasive maneuvers, but occasionally you’ll find yourself
swept into a knot of cow-gazers. At such moments your tourist hatred wells to the
surface, along with the certainty that this project was conceived in order to destroy the
hopes of any surviving flaneurs that might still claim some corner of the city as a refuge
of the imagination.
In contrast with the fixity of the cows, the sidewalks are alive with scooters
zinging every which way like particles crashed out of a cyclotron. Children of all
varieties ride‘ em – push off with one leg, balance on the other – from hulking teens to
kids so tiny they have to reach above their heads to grasp the handles. Moms and dads
too, legions of them – dot-commers heading across toward the Flat Iron, brokers who
shove and glide their suited-up selves all the way to downtown to the buttonwood tree
by the Wall. Into the past the city scoots, back toward the days when the world had a
cowlick, before its voice cracked. Ideally each scooter should come with its own little
dog, white with a black spot over one eye, running alongside, yapping with glee. On
57th Street the other day, you watched a lad of eight or so scoot headfirst into a bright
yellow checker taxicab cow, bounce off and sit down hard on the sidewalk. For all his
tears, nothing more than a shock. You pulled his scooter upright and held out your
hand. Come on – get back on, you’ll be OK.
with the city you can never be sure where reality ends and your projections begin. Are
you a canary in the mine, or just bloody neurasthenic? Beneath the happy horseshit is
this town truly gotten as toxic as it feels? Either way the relentless banality of the cows
and scooters seems only to mock a series of metropolitan horror stories whose
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 82
end of May, two gunmen botched a robbery at a Wendy’s in Queens. They herded five
workers into the basement, put plastic bags over their heads and shot them point blank.
Next, on June 11, as the Puerto Rican Day Parade salsa’d down Fifth Avenue, a
few hundred yards away inside Central Park an ad hoc pack of young men began to
harass women walking or jogging near 59th Street. The pack grew and with it the
viciousness. For over an hour they taunted, stripped, doused and groped dozens of
women, some of whom made it out of the gantlet and beseeched the police lining the
parade route to intervene. The cops refused budge or even report what was going on.
Eventually the mob simply disbanded of its own accord and vanished into the
Then just last week, two houses were leveled in Boerum Hill – reduced to
mounds of brick twenty feet high. Amazingly, only three people killed. The ostensible
cause of the blast, a gas leak. Felt like a horrific throwback to the bad old days of the
early twentieth century, when the electric company was first wiring up the city’s
tenements. They’d run power lines through the old gas pipes, a cheaper method than
putting in new conduits. Occasionally the gas hadn’t been turned off properly, there’d
be friction, a spark, and there went the neighborhood.
A happy thing though, from a purely personal standpoint, is that your queasy
sense of a city at risk has not diminished your capacity for schadenfreude. In June,
ConEd cut off power to several buildings on the Upper East Side when it looked like the
feeder cables were going to blow and bring down the grid. Thus a swath of the
country’s wealthiest zip code went black and its privileged residents turned even
whiter with fury. A whole night without air conditioning! And to think of all that
prime Lobel’s meat going funky in the freezers of 10021.
There’s been subtle change too in the affect of the kids from Silicon Alley who
lunch at Le Gamin – ever since last April when Nasdaq lay down in the gutter like an
exhausted mule. They still order huge quantities of food and leave most of it
untouched. Their chatter sounds just as content-free as ever. But a new edginess has
crept into the way they punch the speed dial or lunge to grab their phones practically
before they’ve begun to warble. Mouths tauter at the edges. Outside, under the
awning, they mill about, distracted, and smoke like Europeans. You want to say Abi
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 83
anything else to peg their lives on. Clinton notwithstanding, they’re Reagan’s children.
The bubble world’s the only one they knew.
And still the residential tower frenzy goes on. Rare is the sidewalk in Chelsea
one can walk down without burrowing through a tunnel of scaffolds and plywood
hoardings. Haven’t heard this many pile drivers since you were a kid and used to nod
off on afternoon naps listening to the rhythm of the boom-shhh – boom-shhh – boom.
The fact is you’re well and truly ready to move. Or at least spend a couple of
years in Paris. Learn a new rhythm. Finally get fluent in another language. Gwen
turned eight last Friday. Makes sense to uproot now before it’s a real culture shock for
her. But Katie’s got her law practice here, and no inclination to leave. And how would
you support yourselves?
The sunsets we’ve been having – and the late afternoon skies! Never seen
cumulus clouds this massive over the city before. Like Venice – or Wyoming – with
high-rises in place of distant mountains. And over on the Jersey side, a new skyline’s
uplifting fast where there never were any towers at all.
You’ve been a regular here nearly five years, since just after the place opened. In
the early days, Robert was the patron. He grew up in Fontainebleau, served in the army
in Africa, then emigrated to the Republic of New York by way of Hong Kong. Being of
an entrepreneurial turn, it didn’t take Robert more than a year of slaving in the galley of
a three-star French restaurant, to figure out that what the city really needed was a first
rate $3 bowl of café au lait, serviceable crêpes and – well, the only word is a German
one – a gemütlich atmosphere in which to consume them. As well as confabulate, play
backgammon or scrabble, read magazines, or, in your case, write undisturbed for hours
Robert opened his first Gamin on MacDougal Street SoHo in 1995. Then, in fast
succession came the Village and Chelsea – and still they multiply – hopping across the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 84
upscale Brooklyn artist’s enclave.
Last year, Robert franchised the Chelsea Gamin to Grainne (pronounced “Gron-
ya”) and Eran. She’s Irish and he’s Israeli. Naturally they met and married in New
York. Grainne’s got a daughter, Danielle, probably in her late teens or early twenties.
You’ve heard her once, and she sings like an angel. The Gamin waitstaff tends to be
Francophone, but few were born in the hexagon itself. Instead they hail from Mali,
Sierra Leone, Senegal, Côte D’Ivoire, Morocco, even New Caledonia, and came here via
Paris or Marseilles. The kitchen staff, including Mario, the chef, and Tomás, the
dishwasher, is uniformly Mexican, mostly from Puebla. As is de rigueur for New York
restaurants these days. Thai, Vietnamese, doesn’t matter. Mayans and their
descendants run the show behind the swinging doors.
Before Robert turned this corner storefront into a nearly flawless simulation of a
French café, it used to be a mom and pop corner grocery, going back several
generations. In photos from the ‘30s, a billboard for Moxie takes up the most of the
brick wall facing 21st Street. The story goes that this was the site of Clement Clark
Moore’s dairy. The Moores, a dynasty of a heavyweight Episcopal theologians, owned
pretty much all of Chelsea in the days when it was one big farm. When Clement Clark
Moore subdivided the land into lots in the mid-19th Century, he donated an entire
square block for the establishment of the General Theological Seminary.
Uptown, the New York Historical Society displays the desk on which Moore
allegedly penned “‘Twas the night before Christmas….” But who’s to say that the muse
didn’t visit him of a snowy eve as he sat in his dairy milking old Bossie? Perhaps in the
very spot Table 4 stands today. That said, it’s not likely the Archbishop milked his own
cows, or for that matter, wrote a doggerel about Old St. Nick. This Moore was certainly
not the merrier. His other published verse is relentlessly Grinch-like in its piety, not a
playful rhyme in the lot of it. But as the newsman said in John Ford’s Who Shot Liberty
Valence? “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
When you got here at 8:15, some even earlier customer had already warmed your
chair and left a copy of the Post on the next table. Strange front page: an extreme close-
up of a mosquito surmounted by the headline: BUGGED! West Nile Virus discovered
in the south end of Central Park. The city plans to spray Manhattan river-to-river from
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 85
Anvil. Last year, Giuliani quashed the mosquito uprising with the relatively benign
Malathion. See what they get for coming back? No more Mr. Nice Guy. “I’m sorry if it
kills animals,” sez Hizonner. “My job is to protect human life.” The paper alleges that
Anvil disperses rapidly in sunlight and rain but notes that its dangerous for people with
respiratory conditions. A couple of Gwen’s classmates are asthmatic. Make a note to
call them just in case their parents didn’t hear the news. As for your household, you’ll
just shut the windows, turn on the fans and not breathe too deeply.
• • •
Midafternoon amble down Sixth Avenue. Between 27th & 28th Streets, the
wholesale flower district. In the course of a single block, so many scents overlap one
another: frying chick peas, something skunk-like, the perfume of roses carried past by a
messenger. Then, in fast succession, searing Halal lamb, and roasting honey nuts!
You cross bustling, anonymous 23rd Street, press on through a two block gantlet
of street vendors, turn west onto 21st Street, heading west, near the shuttered loading
docks of an ex-factory building in the now high-tech Flatiron District. Inadvertently
your eye’s drawn to the sidewalk beneath your feet. You’ve traversed this block dozens
of times, but somehow never registered this detail, a surviving graffito of an age long
past: U.S. GET OUT OF VIET NAM – not scrawled when the cement was wet, but
chiseled into the hardened surface by some anonymous, determined hand.
To all appearances, the neighborhood survived the initial drop of the big Anvil.
Didn’t spot anyone with antennae growing out of their heads on your way to the café.
Next it’s a waiting game to see where West Nile mosquitoes turn up next. If you could
speak raptor, you’d warn the peregrine falcons off eating the Central Park squirrels and
chipmunks. Better hunt elsewhere for a while. Not worried about the pigeons and rats.
They’re a hardy lot, they’ll get by.
George S. stops by your table on his way crosstown to labor in the fast-devaluing
tulip fields of his dot-com startup. Young man looking careworn in the Age of
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 86
from now, he’ll probably be told to can himself. In parting, you exchange the great
urban-Utopian hope that some day soon you’ll actually sit down together and have an
unhurried conversation. George travels abroad as frequently as he can, and usually off
the beaten path. Takes astonishingly beautiful pictures. He looks happy for a moment.
“Finally,” he says, “I’ll have the time.”
Time for you to get moving too. Grainne’s at the register. You pull out your
wallet and she waves you off. “Don’t insult me, Shmoopy,” she says. From whence
springs this flash of generosity? No matter. A treat is a treat. You step out into the
pulsing, fetid heat. Linger a moment on the step, swing the door ajar for the young
woman entering. Taller than you by a couple of inches, copper-blonde hair extensions,
high cheeks the shade of café from La Chinita Linda. Between the hem of her cropped
teeshirt and lowslung waistband, a spiderweb tattoo, ovoid navel at its center. Tearless,
unblinking eye of the city. Wonder of the visible world.
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