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Out of the elevator, walking with the aid of a tubular aluminum cane, comes
another grandmotherly sort. You’ve seen her here before too. Age has rounded her in
all directions, but her face retains the chiseled, high-cheekboned look you associate with
Tina Turner, upward even to her spike-teased hair. All in denim today, save for her
white sneakers and teeshirt. Her jacket’s open just enough for you to read: LORD,
Hide Me in Your Tabernacle.
Gwen and class parade out across the dancefloor in pairs. The gentlemen and
ladies thank one another formally, and whamo!, class dismissed. Downstairs,
zigzagging southwest, block by block toward pizza, you dodge what first you think is
an outsized fly, then in quick succession, two more airborne anomalies. Angle your
vision up and see that these are black, oval curls of ash, scores of ‘em, descending.
“Yeech!” says Gwen. To her it looks like something out of an anime come real. And
then quick as they clustered, the ashes thin to nothing more.
There was, midday – apparently – a huge fire over toward the river. You heard
the sirens, then saw upwards of a dozen trucks and a couple of chief’s cars zooming
west across 23rd Street. But there was nothing on the news at noon, nor now online, as
it gets on to 8:30 p.m. Will the fire stay a mystery? Maybe the story reveals itself
tomorrow, or the day after, or later still. Return to the news. The black flood of greed:
Chevron’s up by fifty percent last quarter.
• • •
8:36 and sirens again. But this is an ambulance heading up Eighth and turning
east on 23rd. The sound fades in to the hiss, counterpointed by honks, that swells at
times into a low roar, then a gradual diminuendo, that makes it possible to hear now
and again, noises in the other rooms of your own apartment.
And now you’ll do something you don’t often do. At the end of this sentence,
you’ll raise your pen off the paper and sit very still.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 765
Tom calls. He lives in London Terrace, aka The Mother Ship, over toward Tenth.
Aha, he knows. Fire first misreported as being in his building. Then, somewhere else.
Turned out to be a rooftop fire, tar and all sorts of crap, atop a tenement on the
northwest corner of Ninth and 24th – the one with the terrific restaurant, Grand Sichuan
International on the ground floor. Yes, and as you recall, a battalion of cellphone relays
ranged round the perimeter of the building’s roof like sentinels, or fortress crenellation
from outer space.
Is it possible? Black ash might’ve blown high up, then drifted down hours later.
You’ll ride by the building tomorrow morning after Ba Gua and assess the damage.
Jeeze, and from here it seemed the whole of Chelsea Piers must have been burning
No obvious signs of a fire from where you sit, pedaling down Ninth on your
bike. Restaurant gate’s pulled down. Which doesn’t mean much at this early hour.
Scan without stopping or slackening your pace – sideways up, then back over your
shoulder. No change from the last time you noticed: right-angled rows of gray metal
electronic boxes still hold the rooftop’s strategic perimeter. One thing odd: a rope and
pulley scaffold hangs from the cornice, unmanned, off-angled.
In front of Le G., the already gray sky is darkened by smoke from a huge blaze in
Greenpoint – more than this you don’t yet know. You watch the unending flow of
vehicles down Ninth Avenue. A MTA Homeless Outreach van, empty but for the
driver and his companion, but plenty of room in back to strap ‘em in once they’ve been
collected and make sure no one gets lost on the way to the shelter. Close behind, a big
brown truck whose flank reads Miracle Relocations in bold white letters. Now comes
the smaller Ciao Bella truck alive with color, a logo a bit like a licking tongue,
presumably packed with highly profitable containers of flavored ice water.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 766
the levee, the weather neither cool nor warm – no feeling precisely – except the lyric
comes into your head: Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.
Biking home, the stuff of a very disturbing dream from last night returns. An
authoritative, paternal fellow you speak with only on the phone, but whose features are
clear in your mind, inveigles you into working for the CIA. Katie’s also in the room
conversing with a thin, tall, gray-haired and sharp-featured man with the result that
you can’t make out what your controller on the other end of the line is saying. You’ve
been assigned to Prague, a much more glamorous Prague than the one in RL, so this
constitutes a plum gig – news that will delight Katie when you tell her. Unless you
blow it. You gesture to her not to talk so loudly. Jeez, doesn’t she understand what’s at
The visuals of the dream get fuzzy, but you begin to feel ill, realizing you’ve been
corrupted, that you slid effortlessly into working against all your own principles. And
the wonder it is that even your suave controller didn’t have to use your radical past as
leverage-cum-blackmail – somehow you passed through the revolving door with nary a
hitch to find yourself, definitively, nauseously, on the other side.
Lord lord lord. Lord love a duck. Ah yes, and the big Mayday surprise, south of
the border: Evo Morales nationalizes Bolivia’s natural gas industry. Does that mean
we’re moving from national socialism to natural socialism? If so, what a gas!
Five-ish. Down Eighth Avenue, through Chelsea and into the village, The
prevailing winds bring a steady scent of those seven – seven! – burning warehouses in
Greenpoint. Not the same smell, but its pungency resonates with that four and a half-
year-old September surprise. Along the way, at around 15th Street, a big guy in a
leather jacket, walking too loose, too cool, pauses to spit, but spits on hisself. Stoned.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 767
café in RL, you notice, with a bit of a start, that you’re rolling round the corner of Ninth
and 25th very smoothly, no kathunk, kathunk. Ah now, looking back over your
shoulder more carefully this time, you can see the toasted, half-melted transponders
along the roof at the back of the Grand Sichuan building.
When, awake. you get to the café, Mark and Bruce tell you about the blaze, how
somehow with all the water that must’ve been cascading down, and the presence of a
host of fire trucks, the restaurant stayed open and filled with customers throughout.
A fig leaf of the imagination.
42nd Street uptown IND. Friday p.m. Rush hour. A thin black man with sharp
features and no legs barrels down the wheelchair ramp negotiating the ninety degree
corners with incredible alacrity. Wotta technique. Much faster descent than most folks
taking the stairs even two at a clip. Near where the ramp meets the platform, a slender
fellow, Asian, bows a stringed instrument about fourteen inches tall that he holds
vertically resting on his thigh: Ave Maria.
Out and up at 59th Street. Set a short spell in the newly renovated uber-
fountained Columbus Circle. To the south, beneath black mesh and scaffolding, they’ve
peeled off the –was it marble? – cladding of the old Hunting Hartford Building. Down
to the bare concrete shell. What next? Peer up at the knife edges of the Time-Warner
towers. How many billions live up there? A work scaffold suspended on pulleys from
a gantry atop the south tower sways slightly toward and away from the glass facing.
Wonderful how the fountains nearly drown out the chopper hanging over CPW
at about 63rd Street. And the gushing water mutes the traffic noise too. Damn near
perfect half moon across the park about thirty degrees up the blue skydome from the
spire of the Pierre.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 768
wheeled valise – baggage of a thousand shapes and sizes. You flash on a memory of a
young Asian woman who walked into Le G. yesterday afternoon. Built like a BSH she
was, tight jean’d and a black tank top, low cut, with a big white-lettered message across
the front: Fuck you fucking you fuck or something to that effect if not verbatim since you
didn’t give enough of a fuck to memorize it.
In front of John Jay College of Criminal Justice on Tenth Avenue you wait for
Gary to come out of his office. You’ll walk over to MoMA together and catch the
Edvard Munch show. Gary’s a member – already been to see the Munch several times,
but this is your last chance since it closes right quick. The plan is thus: Gary lends you
Maki’s card and you just put your thumb over her name when the admissions guard
scans the barcode. And who’s to say you’re not Maki anyway?
An empty plastic bag sweeps north along the sidewalk motivated by the fetid
breeze. Half-crumpled, its – you almost said “his” – movement generates a faint,
Li Zi Ming, the author of your book on Ba Gua, asserts that Qian (yang) heaven,
and Kun (yin) earth, can alternate. “The real meaning of true and false,” says Li, “can
change at any time. The anterior hand is true and the posterior hand is false, or vice
versa. One hand alone can also be divided into true and false, the two legs can be
divided into true and false, the upper and lower parts of the body can be divided into
true and false, and all the directions can be divided into true and false.”
• • •
Ibn ‘Arabi: association between Imagination, Breath, and the increasing
transparency of the veiled.
The “’effusion of being’ that is the ‘sigh of compassion’ flows through the things
of the world like the waters of a river and is unceasingly renewed.”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 769
• • •
A very poor country this, rich in crappy signifiers.
It’s a thin line between ideology and delusion and some of us have slipped over.
• • •
TMT = too many tatts.
• • •
Up to Van Cortlandt Park and off the paved path to wander the two main trails
and myriad smaller diversions in between. First north following the old Croton
Aqueduct, then across the top of the golf course and down the old Penn Central
railroad bed. At times, the decomposing ties intrude onto the path, but mostly they’re
covered in new growth. Occasionally, a metal plate, half-visible amidst the shoots. You
dislodge one, along with the bent, pitted spike that once held it firm against the now
rotten, yielding wood. Nominally, the two of you were on a morel-hunting expedition,
on the lookout for distressed elms around whose roots the prized fungi are reputed to
grow. But many of the Van Cortlandt elms appear, thankfully, in rude health, and you
find the dead or ailing ones surrounded by mustard garlic, an anti-fungal, not to
mention copious insurgencies of poison ivy. Ah well. No morels, no cry.
On the subway downtown, the most stylish person you’ve seen in years – in fact,
to call her stylish damns with faint praise. Five three, say, slightly-built, Japanese,
about twenty, she wears a black knit hat, despite the mild temp, emblazoned with
grinning white skulls and a long, horizontally striped long knit top. All those clues and
it’s a beat or two before you get it: She’s doing “pirate.” Every so often, she takes a pull
from a dome-topped plastic cup, its yellow straw three times thicker than the usual sort.
Café something or other printed on the cup and the greenish mixture she draws in
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 770
seemed laced with blueberries. Aha. A blueberry-friendly straw. Though straight-
faced, in some peculiar way she seems to be laughing with every molecule of her being.
Would that Gwen were along for the ride to see this full-blooded anime princess,
entirely unto herself.
• • •
La old grammaire ain’t what she used to be.
• • •
First use of napalm in combat. American aerial bombardment of the German
stronghold in the citadel of St-Malo, August, 1944.
• • •
Are devices divisive?
What exactly did happen in 1984?
• • •
Rearranging icebergs in the North Atlantic.
• • •
On NPR radio this a.m., a clip of Arlen Spector disapproving of Bush’s nominee
for head of the CIA. Spector’s voice is redolent with a combined corruption and self-
importance – qualities as telltale to the ear, as unmistakable in their own way, as the
raspy imprint of cigarettes and booze. Traces of a life lived, truthful beyond words.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 771
subsequent “unrest” on the streets, the BBC’s Andrew North observed a “dramatic
change in attitude.” Is he correct? Did the celebratory outburst that followed the
chopper’s crash, which killed all those aboard, signify a shift in attitude, or did it more
accurately represent a pot of sentiment from which the lid had been momentarily
• • •
They used to say “You are,” or such-and-such is, “driving me to distraction.”
What does one say now, in a state of more or less permanent distraction, when all forces
are mobilized toward evermore refracted mindstates?
Afternoon. On the downtown IRT local you sit. A woman stands in front of you,
grasping the overhead rail with both hands. With each sway of the train, a swath of her
belly floats toward and away from the tip of your nose. The belly, per se, is fine. It’s
the package you find offputting. Her hair has been waved, Medusa-style, and
processed into an odd shade that oscillates between rose gold and burnt umber. A
hardness to her face, lips outlined much darker than the gloss tone. What you can
readily see of her teeshirt reads:
The fourth and presumably concluding line of this message lies hidden by the
narrowing v of her cropped jacket, but you content yourself with not knowing the full
text, rather shift your eyes, to the degree possible around her to focus on the poster for
HSBC, “the world’s local bank” across the aisle.
The graphics consist of a mosaic of fifty or so little headshots supposed,
apparently, to represent the city’s multifarious population. Each face is superimposed
with an adjective: Grand, Dumb, Wicked, Bright, Huge, Ecstatic, Rotten, Gross,
Alluring – each word purporting to answer the question posed by the headline: New
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 772
Quiet, Dull, Rude, Lacking, Greedy, Sublime, Cruel…
Yes, and why not Dopey, Sleepy, Grumpy into the bargain? High ho!
• • •
Just ahead of the G-8, Cheney attacks the Russians – noise to distract from his
mad grabbing of Caspian Sea resources, not to forget Iran. The Kremlin issues no
rebuttal, apart from describing his words as “completely incomprehensible.”
Rotten, Wicked, Lacking, Greedy, Cruel…
Back then, at the end of the Movement, delivering film reels on your bicycle, you
were Mercury. And that’s really what you’ve always done. Is anything your own, or is
your whole being caught up in facilitating communication among the squabbling gods?
• • •
Fascinating, the day we realized that the images in those caves weren’t painted,
but extruded from the rock itself.
• • •
Headline – top story – in the online Times: “Iranian’s Letter to Bush Emerges.”
As though describing a document written in invisible ink and held up to the light. But
these words are not free, their luminescence has been sponsored. So what’s powering
that bulb, the one that allows us to read Ahmadinejad’s words? Click on the headline
and the story comes up. And next to it, an advertisement, far more visually compelling
than the picayune text that takes up the righthand third of the web page
“HOLY COW!” Can it happen here? This headline and its subordinate colored
white against a graphic, sepia-toned, of the New York skyline being sliced diagonally
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 773
across by a massive tornado – its funnel reaching way higher into the darkened sky
than the silhouetted spire of the Empire State building. From upper right to lower left
the twister swirls – all of Chelsea and the Flatiron district engulfed in a cloud of debris.
“Mega Disasters. Series Premiere, May 9th.” And below this – somewhere at bedrock
level were this depiction a cutaway – the chiseled gold-on-red Roman capital H logo of
the History Channel.
Ah, but then there’s Ahmadinejad’s letter itself – the first direct communication
from an Iranian political leader to an American President since 1979. Its content is
extraordinary too. And it brings home, all in all, that there is a great difference between
people willing to die themselves and people willing to have other people die for them.
• • •
Belo Horizante, Beautiful Horizon. With 2.3 million souls, it’s the fourth largest
city in Brazil, capital of the state of Minas Gerias. Often called “Beagá,” from the
sounds of its initials in Portuguese, it was founded by a prospector in 1751 and built on
the site of a village, Curral d’el Rey, Corral of the King. Interesting demographic: the
majority of Beagá’s inhabitants are female – a hundred and seventy-five thousand more
women then men. And then there’s the illusion of Ruao do Amendoim, Peanut Street, a
sloping road where parked cars appear to roll uphill, defying gravity.
Early a.m. Back to chill, overcast early spring. Recent shifts in the wind
direction were, it seems, in vane.
• • •
Late a.m. Flatiron. A young whitefella, carrot-tanned, slacks, blue button-down,
into his cellphone: “He makes one phone call and I lose the apartment because I’m not
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 774
• • •
Why do you suddenly notice them more: bands of young adults, kids really, in
mini-tribes, affiliated with one another but seemingly disaffected from the street, like
they’re tourists. But they’re not.
Globalize that. Where do they live? What stuff do their roots tap into, or are they
airborne plants? To some extent, they look like peddlers, carrying all manner of things.
But these are their possessions, they live within a nimbus of signifying object. What
ever will they produce?
• • •
Early p.m. As you pass, the door of Dunkin’ Donuts on Eighth Avenue opens
and out staggers a man with olive skin drawn tight over his facial bones. Black tattoos
of skulls ring his neck, like a thick collar. That’s all you can handle. Turn away.
• • •
In ancient Egypt, a “heart scarab,” depicting a dung beetle, was used extensively
in funerary rites. Often cut from green stone, and placed on the chest, the scarab
insured that the heart would not bear witness against the deceased at judgment in the
Believing dung beetles to be exclusively male creatures who reproduced by
burying their semen in a dung ball, the Egyptians associated them with Khepri, “he
who has come into being,” an embodiment of the sun, who created himself out of
nothing. Thus Khepri rolls the solar ball over the horizon at dawn and across the sky
until nightfall. He carries it through the other world to be renewed at break of day.
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