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“(My) soldiers (are) strange anomalies of the crooked development of this
country. There are no longer proletarians, miserable or exploited. There’s a third thing
growing out there, cultivated in mud, schooled in illiteracy, qualified in prisons, like an
alien monster hidden in the cracks in the city.
The combination of poverty and technology, modern weapons and the internet,
has created shit with chips, with megabytes. My commanders are a mutation of the
species; they’re a fungus grown on a huge filthy mistake.” So says Marcola, imprisoned
CEO of the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Capital Command/PCC) gang in São
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 812
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, despite a host of traumas that seemed almost
perfunctory, the world slid into a different mode. Perfectly solid material objects
passed through one another where once their intersection might have occasioned
catastrophic results. Conversely, vast structures were jolted, pulverized even, by forces
so undetectable that one was tempted to question the evidence of the senses.
6:30-ish. Flight’s been delayed. But you’re on the runway now, revving turbines.
Invisible winged horses pulling your chariot up into the sky. Next stop, la belle France.
Afternoon, first day. When it reaches Place de Clichy, the bus has to make a
detour, the route’s blocked by a demonstration, so you disembark. On the island at the
center of the intersection, flags by the dozen, Palestinian and Lebanese. Hard to tell
how many people gathered, but the tone is loud and vociferous. On the sidestreets,
hundreds of gendarmes, shins armored in black plastic, like football strikers playing for
the State in the insurgency World Cup. White fellas all, short-haired young hunks.
Standing, bavarding casually on the sidewalks next to their midnight blue vans.
Back at home after dinner at Le Philosophe, you pick up a tenuous signal on your
laptop, sufficient to slowly load the NYT front page. Headline comes up before
pictures: “U.S. Rushes Precision-Guided Bombs to Israel.”
• • •
Saturday night and the patrons of the Cameroonian restaurant downstairs
overflow into the street. Intermittently it wakes and lulls you – the whole
neighborhood a rolling boil of sound after such a sweltering day. A baby’s cry, men’s
voices – one hard as a hammer, another whose interjections remind you of the call of a
bird. Bass cranked, a passing car.
Katie can’t sleep, bails out of the pullout sofa to crash in Gwen’s room which
faces the back courtyard instead of the street. Half-awake all night – just as well
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 813
considering what you might dream: images of the new front opening up in this awful
war wherein the West has nothing to win but its own self-annihilation.
Day of rest, mostly. Walk round the Jardin du Luxembourg. Dinner in the
Marais. Return to the apartment late evening. Crane over the window railing holding
your iBook in hopes of catching a signal. Nothing off to the left hand side, try the right.
Quelle surprise! So far off across the city it looks like a battery-lit souvenir, there’s le
Tour Eiffel. You put the computer down, hop onto the window sill and stand there,
gazing at the beacon as it languidly sweeps the sky. Suddenly, the whole of the
structure begins to sparkle like a vast pantomime of fireflies. Right – the midnight
show. The light play goes on for ten minutes, and then, whamo, it’s over and instead of
a sequinned gown, the tower reverts to its bones – a matrix of black ironwork suffused
with a pallid orange glow. The searchlight’s back too – the shimmering intensity had
stolen its thunder. No watch on so you count pulses. Thirty-two for the beam to swing
fully around. Or by another measure, every seven breaths.
• • •
Sunday night, so the racket from Le Doyen downstairs seems subdued when set
against last night’s uproar. You’d been near delirious with fatigue, alternately sinking
and rising on cacophonic waves, only dimly aware of particular currents in the ocean of
noise. Now though, wide awake and looking down into the street four flights below,
you find you can explain the former enigma and even identify some of its authors.
Every few minutes, a man steps out of the restaurant to engage in a cellphone
conversation that would likely be impossible given the din inside. The speech
characteristics of each man varies, but there seems to be a general consensus among
them that, apart from discretionary emphasis, forte is a virtue in its own right.
And then another sort of dialogue comes into play each time one of the habitués
heads home, for the owner accompanies him out onto the sidewalk and thus begins an
exchange of well-wishing calls and responses at a volume that grows in proportion to
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 814
the lengthening distance between M. le Patron and the departing one, and only ceases
when the latter turns the corner onto rue Guy Môquet and disappears from view.
It’s an open question too how a bistrot that seems, looking in from the doorway,
to have quite a small interior, is able accommodate so many solidly-built fellows. One
puzzle solved, but still, mysteries, mysteries.
Really, it’s a 24/7 deal. So great is the amplification of sound on this street that
when the garbage truck makes its pass in the early a.m. you hear the whole
neighborhood being engulfed: houses, cars and human souls. But the visuals are anti-
climactic, just two green-suited men rolling out refuse bins and inverting them into the
Return to bed and recover an uneasy doze, the dawn’s first crisis having past,
when suddenly the whole cacophony begins to build again. Back to the window. Aha,
a second garbage truck! Which is how you discover that there are two distinct orders of
refuse handled by entirely different crews: green-topped general bins and recyclable
containers with yellow lids. Now if, just if, you were to come back as a refuse bin,
which sort would you most likely be?
• • •
“Pasting feathers together, hoping for a duck,” is how an anonymous Colonel
assigned to the Coalition Provisional Authority in put it in his “end-of-tour report on
post-war planning and the reconstruction of civil order.” This nugget in Thomas E.
Ricks’s book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.
Though there’s really no comparing Iraq and Vietnam, the book title makes you
flash on an old association. Way back when he was a Parisian, Ho Chi Minh (“He Who
Enlightens”) ran a photo studio somewhere in this arrondisement. Look it up in your
digital notes and there it is, the ad he placed under one of his aliases in a local paper:
“You who wish to have a living remembrance of your parents, have your photographs
retouched at Nguyen Ai Quoc’s, 9 Impasse Compoint, Paris 17th District.”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 815
off Guy Môquet. Once upon a time, before PhotoShop. And in between these two
moments, Guy Môquet lived until he didn’t, shot by the Gestapo at the age of 17.
Ubiquitous posters for the Musée du quai Branly: Là ou les cultures dialoguent.
Ah, a museum where cultures cross-communicate. Sounds great, but t’aint so.
It turns out to be a wonderful, utterly unbalanced collection of art and artifacts
from parts of the world that can be described as the non-West – each discretely
packaged. That said, what Nouvel has contrived is not a series of galleries, rather a
long structurally indeterminate space that loops back on itself giving the visitor the
sense of being digested by a worm. Except for the display cases themselves and their
contents, everywhere shoddy workmanship and offputting materials. No snack bar, nor
even water fountains. The café is separate, located at some remove from the exhibition
building and featuring almost laughably high prices. For all the drama in the
presentation of artifacts, no sense of connection between the objects on view and the
ongoing narrative of human production and use. Hence your experience overall is of
having been subjected to a thoroughgoing misanthropology at the level of design.
But there is one area where the fundamental heartless of the place turns truly
anti-human, and this is a vast glassed-in cylinder, several stories tall – a structure within
a structure – containing thousands of musical instruments from Andean flutes to West
African lutes and Indonesian drums. The instruments are placed on black metallic
industrial shelves – these in seemingly endless, dimly-lit rows. This charnelhouse, you
learn, is a research collection, inaccessible to the general public. As you
circumambulate the cylinder, every so often, a tiny speaker overhead will pipe out an
example of the sounds the instruments within are capable of producing. But the effect
is a bit like visiting a zoo in which all the animals live in suspended animation and
videos demonstrate the monkey’s swing and the tiger’s roar. Trapped within the glass,
the living souls of the instruments seem broken in spirit. Captive too, however
invisibly, some aspect of the people who made these objects and brought forth sounds
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 816
from them, as well as those for whom their music served as a source of energy,
movement and meaning.
• • •
Israelis drop white phosphorus on southern Lebanon.
The wonder of a suggestion is that it does not necessarily trigger predictable
associations. One may watch actors kiss onscreen and may feel moved to embrace the
person sitting next to us, but the sight of a plane in flight could stimulate anything from
terror, to a desire to be borne aloft, to transform or transplant ourselves. And seeing a
bird fly toward its nest may evoke a feeling of homesickness, or simply remind one to
stop by the store and pick up some eggs. A sail, out near the horizon – does that tug us
back toward the familiar, or draw us outward in search of the not-yet-known?
You sit in the Cour Marly sketching an action-packed marble sculpture of
Neptune stabbing, quite forcefully, an equine-headed sea monster with his trident. A
young American woman, mid-to-late teens, passes by, asks her companion with what
seems genuine bewilderment: “Why is he killing his horse?”
Change vantage points. This time draw Neptune and his victim from the back.
Several members of an affable family, apparently from Belfast, squeeze onto the bench
you’ve been sitting on and quite unconsciously crowd you off the end. Their
conversation sounds desultory. It hardly registers until Mum says: “Let’s go – we’ve
had enough culture. Time for some retail therapy.”
Neptune in your pad, you wander while Gwen and Katie labor on at sketching
their respective statues. Find yourself in Islam where a thousand year old Iranian plate
virtually leaps out of the case at you, a gorgeous inscription around its edge. “Science,”
it reads, “your taste is bitter in the beginning, but at the end, more sweet than honey.”
In the center, a black dot which, on closer inspection, resembles a yin-yang.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 817
Traveling light without your beard trimmer means shaving with a razor
approximately every ten days, or when the growth gets too bushy. Relatively cool the
breeze on the second morning after the storm broke la canicule. So the skin on your
face stings, newly scraped and shy about going forth naked in the world. At your best,
you imagine that, sans barbe, you somewhat resemble David’s self-portrait at the
Louvre. At your worst, the look is of a semi-feral rabbit.
See, everything changes. You used, on every previous trip, to rush out early,
find a congenial café and write to greet the day. This time, for five days running,
you’ve made coffee in the apartment, then ventured out to buy croissants, bread and
cheese. On your return, after rousing Gwen and eating breakfast, the three of you
organized yourselves and headed off together.
This morning you make coffee, but don’t drink it. Instead you aim yourself at a
café you’ve noticed on Clichy, but end up, after some wandering at a smaller one, Le
Zinc, at the corner of Des Moines and Lemercier just across from the covered Marchée
Some of the meandering that brought you here led toward the rail yard and the
tracks that go to St-Lazare. But before that, you walked along a private street, Cité des
Fleures, just parallel and west of rue Gauthey. It’s a long block, closed to cars, and
unusual for Paris since all the houses are set back behind gated gardens. Down the
sidewalk came a fluffy tomcat of exceptional coloration. Clearly possessed of his own
agenda, he paused for a moment of contact with the two-legged creature who squatted
down to stroke him. When you straightened up, you noticed the plaque on the
masonry gatepost in front of you. It was in the house half-hidden by trees, just beyond
this wall, that the Maquis ran their forged document operation until they were
discovered in May, 1944. “Executée sur place Colette Heilbronner…”, then a list of
several names: “morts en deportation…”.
It was only a half hour or so ago that you scratched the cat’s ruff, but now you
can’t remember the his colors – rather sense them as a Joseph’s coat of fur.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 818
and they fight, or bite, back. The leg sticks to pavement so you nearly upend the table
sitting down in your chair. The cellophane wrapper won’t come off the biscuit that
supplements your coffee. You take a sip from the water glass and l’addition beneath it
blows away, whereas on other mornings, a bit of dampness usually adheres it to the
It’s six summers now in a row you’ve traveled here. Unthinkable seven years
ago. As unthinkable as the towers falling the fortnight after you returned from the first
trip in ‘01. It’s a funkier Paris now, or rather the funkiness has expanded its hold,
though most folks still cultivate a propre bearing in public. But that’s undermined by
generally uglier, more globalized clothing. More frequently you see women and men
alike wearing shapeless pants with too many pockets – pockets superfluous for even a
bushwhacking expedition – or else pre-distressed jeans that look like a souvenir of one’s
days on the chain gang.
But the peaches still sing out as you pass the fruiterer – their promise invariably
kept in the biting. And lo, the public toilet kiosks have multiplied. And above each
hangs the happy sign: “Accès Gratuit.”
Ah, just there in the gutter, a pigeon is beak-wrestling with a peanut shell. He
pecks, gets his beak stuck, then flips the encumbrance away. He’s persistent though
and for every twenty pecks, a reward: a bit of nut skin! Now the pigeon approaches
and you lay your supplementary biscuit before him. You’d bet on it and you’re right –
the pigeon has less trouble getting off the cellophane wrapper than you did.
On the shuttle bus at Charles de Gaulle, the driver’s seat manifests the strangest
hydraulics in Christendom. Any bump or dip in the road, however slight, sends the
driver bobbing up and down like a noddy toy. Disconcerting too how absolutely free of
distinct qualities he seems. You only notice him because of he’s in thrall to a seat with
neurasthenic suspension and it strikes you forcefully, straddling your luggage to keep it
from toppling over, how powerful is the mechanism that placed this man in these
circumstances – what a, well, awesome, social armature positions us wherever we sit or
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 819
stand. So much energy constrains mitigates against any autonomous act of will, except
those we expend in small, often self-destructive exercises that both add up and reduce
to the shrunken freedoms we conserve to ourselves.
Noddies of the world awake! We’re not in Toyland any more.
• • •
Antibes. Ninety-two steps, up the narrow stairs to Benedetta and Carlo’s place.
It can’t be called a pied à terre because those steps wind up so high up that when you
emerge you’re practically in the stratosphere.
Benedetta told you that, on their last stay there, an albatross couple had taken
roost on the rooftop and were zealously guarding their young. Therefore it would be
necessary to buy some fish at the marché with which to gain admission to the terrace.
But when you step outside, you find the albatrosses and their young have departed. All
that remains of their presences is detritus on the tile floor: feathers, a few splats of
guano, bits of prehistoric-looking fish cartilage. For a moment, you feel disappointed,
but then oddly happy that they’d found this place to nest, and then, their young
successfully launched, moved on. And now you look around to where nothing,
nothing blocks your view of the harbor, the Vauban fort and Nice across the bay.
Mountains – could those be Maritime Alps? – looming to the west.
Midday. You return from the beach to find that a freak gust of wind has blown
the big blue umbrella you’d set up clean off the terrace, ripped the shaft free of its heavy
concrete base which it dragged several feet to the balustrade. Some bits of the frame
and fabric landed in the street – thankfully no one hurt. Most of the debris fell onto the
terrace of the apartment below. You and Katie reassemble the ruined thing as best you
can, unbending some of the aluminum struts, though one is mangled beyond repair.
Somehow the image of this bombardment you unwittingly precipitated from the sky
resonates with the bombs raining on Lebanon, and fast as anything, in the brilliant sun
of your much-loved Mediterranean, you arrive on the brink of despair.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 820
Stop for lunch in Les Issambres. It’s a beautifully designed restaurant
overlooking a rocky, sheltered beach. The clientele, by and large, almost comically
nouveau riche. Below, on a terrace, a blonde woman, topless, propped up on her chaise
longue. Though her body is wizened, her astonishingly smooth, perfectly
hemispherical breasts seem to belong to an entirely different person, or to no one at all –
perhaps they exist as an autonomous dyadic organism.
Powerful the effects of Brother Helios over time. In Antibes two days ago, an
elderly woman wearing shorts and a sleeveless top passed by the café where you sat
over morning coffee. Years of sun worship combined the with the natural settling of
her body had produced skin that resembled hide, or else gnarled, burnished wood. Or
a desiccated topography scored by ancient streambeds. For an instant, you had the
sense you were watching a movie in which a remarkable humanoid had been created
via special effects. Your grilled crevettes arrive, and a fingerbowl filled with water and
a slice of lemon. Dig in.
Well filled, you contemplate the water in the cove, stunningly gorgeous. While
Katie takes care of the bill, you walk to the car, parked some ways down the road tight
up against a hedge, with full intent to grab the backpack in which you’d packed the
towels and head back for la plage. Wow, what’s this? – the back seat’s filled with
resplendent crystals And there are your packs, askew and rifled. It takes you a beat to
register that someone’s shattered and you wuz robbed. Coughdrops, aspirin and Tums
strewn amidst the vitreous debris. Whomever did it wanted drugs badly, to the
exclusion of nearly all else. Apart from a few American dollars, nothing’s missing, not
your computer, nor Katie’s camera. Bloody lucky. But Jesus, what a maroon! How is it
that a little dose of posh surroundings and Mediterranean atmospherics tricked you
into jettisoning a lifetime of street smarts. Why the hell didn’t you take the backpacks
inside? Or at least lock them in the trunk? Seduced you were, disconcerted even, by
this idyllic spot.
A conversation with the local Gendarmerie ensues to no effect. Correct in
manner, they remain utterly disengaged. And what, really, could they do? You’d have
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 821
imagined some sort of Clouseau-like attempt at searching for the perps, or at least a
report, perhaps in triplicate, or but this sort of incident, involving a rented car and no
appreciable theft, does not rise to the level of catalyzing action.
Katie borrows a broom and dustpan from the restaurant and you sweep up the
glass as best you can, pick the smaller bits out of the seat seams by hand. Backtrack two
hours along an impossibly crowded road to St-Raphael to consult with the local Avis,
but they have no replacement for your car so onward you journey, naturally air-
conditioned. Let’s see what happens when you reach Marseille.
Windy as hell it was way up on the lofty balustrade of Nôtre Dame de la Garde –
the city and port of Marseille spread before you. The wicked gust that claimed the
umbrella in Antibes turns out to have been, no more no less, than the opening volley of
Finally you’ve arrived within striking distance of La Cité Radieuse. But it takes a
certain amount of faith to imagine this legendary place exists at all – somewhere,
unmarked, in the suburbs of Marseille, along the Boulevard Michelet. Did you
overshoot it somehow? No, its there – through a scrim of tall trees – the unmistakable
grid: raw concrete mullions separate alternating squares of red, yellow and blue. Two
passes before you find the spot to turn in. Eye of the needle. You’d felt blasé about it
until this morning, but now your knees are a bit rubbery. Loads of space in the parking
lot so you leave Katie and Gwen eating croissants in the car, the Dixie Chicks’s Long
good CD player too – which you exchanged in Hyères for the Renault Laguna with the
Corbusier’s building is vast, perched on its concrete V-stilts, and it’s crumbling.
All around on scaffolds, a small army of men labor at repairing it as best they may.
Your shock at finding the cité actually inhabited makes you realize that your mind has
placed it into the category of Ancient Monument – a twice-real place, like the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 822
Parthenon. As you walk in the surrounding park you encounter people
indistinguishable from those who populate any other reasonably prosperous banlieue.
Over time and generations, residents have particularized their once-identical terraces
with awnings and plantings of diverse sorts.
Slowly you circumambulate modernism’s Ka’aba. Yes, it feels like a sacred site.
The living embodiment of a culture’s dream life. Unlike the Hajj pilgrims, you are a
solitary and reluctant worshipper. But no longer in doubt about one thing. The power
of this place goes way past the ego of any one man, even Le Corbusier’s.
Onward to Arles. Back in Marseille tonight just after sunset, they’ll be showing
King Kong: La originale – un projection gratuit en plein aire – in the heart of the old
immigrant quarter, la Place du Refuge.
Arles – a town where, according to M. Barrès, “rien n’est vulgaire.” So… Place
de la République, Sunday, early a.m.. Pretty deserted. A bench. Sound of squeaky
wheels. A Japanese family pulling its luggage. Soon their modest noise is swallowed
up by the Ancienne Rue des Gantiers and forward in the mix comes the splash of water.
Across the square, the fountain: Four cardinal bronze Hercules heads – to all
appearances identical – each spouting water from his mouth. Each crowned with a
Nemian lion cap – skull and skin. The beast’s paws hang down over Hercules’s ears,
the texture of the fur blending with his beards.
These heroes do not appear happy. Rather resigned. Almost crosseyed with
fatigue or some other distress which begs the question whether the water they disgorge
stands for emesis. And then too, a prominent sign warns: Eau non potable. Above the
quadruplet Hercules’s, on each corner of the plinth, perches a very robust and self-
satisfied looking bronze lion. Abundantly maned, paws resting serenely on the stone,
the lions serve to anchor an obelisk, two stories tall or more, which is thought to have
stood as the centerpiece of the long-buried Roman Circus. “See,” the lions seem to say,
“It’s just a fable. We’re not dead after all.”
Caught up in the mute drama of the fountain, you didn’t notice her arrival, but a
Gypsy wearing a figured headscarf, blue jacket and purple skirt has set herself up on
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 823
the top step below the now-opened side-aisle door of St. Trophime. She’s hunched into
herself, legs drawn up against the stone step. Despite her bright colors, she projects a
living embodiment of discomfort.
Her scarf ripples in the wind and you glimpse her tanned face in profile. Now
she turns her head and following the sweep of her eyes across the square your gaze falls
on the fountain’s other creature – a metal swan’s head dripping water from its beak. Its
neck curved like a crook, the swan is positioned near where the stone basin bows out to
create a favored bathing spot for pigeons and thirst-slaker for the occasional dog.
To your left, the door of the Hôtel de Ville stands open. You’ve been inside and
seen the vaulted ceiling of the rez-de-chaussée. It’s a masterpiece. No wonder
apprentice masons once traveled impossible distances to study it.
Back to the Gypsy, immobile. Until the both of you turn toward the sound of a
garbage truck passing up the far end of the square. She flattens her back against the
doorframe, and for a moment, her body transfigures into relaxation, then, as though
torqued by a spring, curls back in upon itself.
Before you sat down, you circumambulated the square, noting the streetsigns
whose names give evidence of the city’s old penitent orders: The black manteaux,
purple, red, gray, blue, white. There must have been many. This self-gnarling woman
seems a sister spirit to those who needed so badly to be redeemed.
And the faces of the living women of Arles are exceptional – a range of
individually modulated characteristics exist within a coherent set of variables: Olive-
peach skin and pointed chins. Large eyes, almond shaped. This is how you imagine
women looked in ancient Crete.
Distinct too, the Arles bread – about ten inches long, pretty thick around, whole
grain and sprinkled with poppy seeds. Its colors range from off-white through darkest
rust to nearly black. All taste delicious. Some of the best bread under the sun, slathered
The clock on the tower of the Hôtel de Ville reads five to nine. Not long before
whomever’s going to mass walks up the steps and past the Gypsy, either giving her
alms or not, as their disposition allows. You remember, back in ’86, how a Gypsy with
a baby glued to her breast stood in front of you as you left a cambio in Florence. You
made to go around her, but she reached out and lightly touched your elbow – the same
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 824
arm you’d injured twenty-odd years before, slipping on ice and cracking it on the
subway steps at Rector Street. After the Gypsy’s touch, your elbow tingled for weeks.
Ah, the sound of church bells. A girl, maybe five, runs full tilt across the square. She’s
with a sister, half a head taller. Both in red dresses, pink sneakers. Up onto the edge of
the fountain they jump, their arms held out like tightrope walkers. On the way here,
you passed a street, slightly uphill, an alley really, whose name struck you but which
now you can’t quite remember. Something on the order of “Street of the Recuperation
Arrival in Tarascon. On the same road, and probably not far from your hotel,
Van Gogh painted a horse-drawn coach, Tarascon Diligence. Officially, the painting
was made in Arles, but you don’t buy it. The street in the picture is still recognizable as
this one, as much for the angle and quality of the light as the look of the houses behind
the coach. Plus the color and sense of sky. The more you stand in the spots he did, the
more you come to appreciate Van Gogh as a realist.
So – this town being its home, what do we know about La Tarasque? That it –
she? – was an amphibious creature. Head of a lion, dragon body. In a cave along the
banks of the Rhône is where La Tarasque took shelter, occasionally venturing out to
devour, apparently without preference, local children and cattle. It might very well try
to gobble an adult too, if she or he tried to cross the river.
of La Tarasque’s reign of terror, and immediately came to the rescue. Martha
confronted the beast with her most potent weapon: a cross – the sight of which
instantly tamed the monster, which suffered itself to be captured and afterward led
about on a silken cord.
This was the legend, initiated or elaborated by King René, a bad military
strategist but a successful host and patron of fables. The King, best know today for
commissioning the illuminated and less-than-pious Book of Love, staged elaborate
festivities still held at the end of June featuring a model of the famous beast. Each year,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 825
La Tarasque is hauled through the streets by a half dozen rough-hewn fellows. Each
year, the town celebrates a reenactment of its scourge’s subjugation.
• • •
What do we know about the Mistral? That it can make one mad. That it blows
in cycles of three days.
• • •
Prisoners are we in distress.
By the French we was caught
And to this prison we was brought.
This scratched in stone, low down on a wall in King René’s château.
Up early and rambling about en seulle to sniff out the really good bread and
croissants. There’s a boulangerie just down the street from your hotel, but you suspect
with a little luck you’ll find one that’s better on the other side of town. Passing beneath
an ancient stone-columned arcade, you notice a shop whose windows are covered with
brown paper. But the door’s been left ajar. Peek inside. A couple of workmen. And La
Tarasque! So that’s where they keep her.
• • •
Le Pont du Gard is the most visually spectacular section of the Roman aqueduct
that once supplied fresh water to the city of Nîmes at a rate of forty-four million gallons
per diem. Over the course of its thirty mile run from the Uzès springs, the stone
conduit descended a mere seventeen meters. Here, spanning the Gard valley, the water
channel ran along the top of a massive bridge – three levels of rigorously geometric
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 826
stone arches built by a thousand workers when Christ was nineteen. Some of the blocks
are tremendous, five tons and more. Well into the modern era, journeyman masons
traveled from far and wide to study this wonder.
While Katie and Gwen find a shaded spot and begin their paintings, you climb a
multitude of steps, purchase a ticket and wait for the guide to lead your group across.
At the outset, walking single file, there’s a grand view over the parapet. From sixteen
stories above the river, you take in a near panorama of the surrounding countryside and
glimpse, in the river below, folks piloting kayaks and brash young fellows leaping into
the water from the rocks along the bank.
But now you have to duck you head and proceed crouched over beneath a
ceiling of stone slabs into a darkness that becomes more absolute with every step. Only
rarely does a crack between stones permit a narrow band of light to fall across your
path. Are you the only person making the journey solo? Just ahead, a group of several
Germans, and behind, an extended Japanese family. Both parties talk volubly among
themselves and when they both speak at once, their voices reverberate off the tunnel’s
surfaces in an impossible jumble of sound. This is it, you think, we’re all marching toward
hell together. You’ve been tricked: that’s actually the Styx below. This gentle slope downward
doesn’t lead to Nîmes at all. And the seemingly bland young fellow leading your little company,
why he’s Charon in disguise!
With every step these morbid thoughts, no less painful for being ridiculous,
compound into an acute sensation of distress at being separated from Katie and Gwen.
Is this something like what Persephone felt? Will your girls eventually figure out that,
all unwittingly, you bought a one-way ticket that irrevocably wrenched you apart from
them? Rebelling against this absurd sense of dread your mind throws up a more
felicitous image. This is not a parade of lost souls, rather one river traversing another, a
procession of living water vessels crossing a free-flowing stream? Suddenly, a burst of
happy exclamations from the Japanese – they’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel.
You emerge blinking, scan the bank for Katie and Gwen and easily pick them
out, sitting on the low stone wall where you left them, pads on their laps, looking
upward toward the Pont but not at you – you’re far too small to distinguish at this
range, especially with the sun behind you. Conscious now of the rays beating down,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 827
watercolor over pencil sketches. But you never do underdrawings, just work fast,
aiming for a sense of the moment, rather than precise draftsmanship. You’re almost
done splashing your paints into a colorful semblance of gold-ochre arches when a
Mistral gust shears along the river, threatens to tear the leaves from your pad. Sand hits
your skin like numberless pinpricks. Your little water pot and bulldog clip fly off the
wall, send you scrambling to retrieve them. Bathers on the limestone rocks attempt to
beat away the clinging dust. Impossible task. Into the Gard they plunge. Clean as
babes again. Hallelujah!
Late dinner at Le Soleil, a bistrot in the town of Beaucaire across the river from
Tarascon. The whole day spent in Avignon, and something in the experience made you
giddy – a sensation you’ve just compounded by drinking an iced tumbler of 51 and
beginning a refill. So when your waitress stands by the table awaiting your order, you
find that her bejeweled navel ornament revolves in your gaze like Ezekiel’s wheel – way
in the middle of the air. Near heroically, you wrench your eyes upward to meet hers
and request moules marinière and a 1664.
About midway through the meal, to judge by the proliferation of empty shells,
you pause for a moment. The beer has not improved your clear-headedness. Into the
pot you stare to discover, amidst the protean forms of the still-to-be-eaten mussels, a
perfect miniature of the ninth circle of Dis. You laugh aloud – to your ears a kind of
bark. Katie and Gwen, preoccupied with their own dinners, glance over at you, mildly
concerned. But what to say? That you’ve just had an epiphany? The hellish blue-black
mussel pit into which you’re staring has its perfect obverse – which you saw today: the
ghost-white walls of the Avignon Popes’s fortress.
You smile and shake your head and the three of you recommence eating.
This afternoon, the three of you walked out on the Pont d’Avignon and, with
Gwen participating most reluctantly – given her fourteen-year-old’s aversion to any sort
of public display – improvised a dance tous en rond. It didn’t seem to assuage her that
no one paid your little spectacle any mind. As you ambled back toward shore, a tall
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 828
man walked nearby, holding his daughter’s hand. She couldn’t have been more than
three, round features, golden curls, unselfconsciously belting out the lyrics to the song
she already knew by heart.
• • •
Provençal child heroes: Bénézet – after whose vision was built Le Pont
d’Avignon. Jean de l’Ours, brought up by a bear. At twelve, he forged an iron staff and
traversed the countryside killing dragons. Married a princess formerly in thrall to one
Then there’s Guillhem l’Orphelin who possessed a white hen whose feathers he
would stroke whereupon both of them became invisible. Guillhem heard tell of an evil
baron who had imprisoned a king and his daughter. Armed with his hen, he set off to
free them, and, having bested the baron, wed the princess.
Tarascon: the Souleiado fabric museum. Myriad woodcarved print blocks, gaily
dressed dummies and 18th century Santons. Among the artifacts of vanished Provence,
a silkscreened poster advertising the June 1926 Grand Fêtes d’Arles.
The poster depicts two young women seen from behind, nearly in silhouette.
Both wear traditional clothes, modest, yet unambiguously feminine. Before the women
spreads a broad field striated with rows of grapevines and punctuated by tall cypresses
and a single, gnarled olive tree. One of the women stands. Though you cannot see her
eyes, you are certain she’s focused across the field on the distant town, Arles. The other
woman sits on a large stone, her shawl draping behind her. She gazes at something out
of frame to the left. Rarely have you seen an image so imbued with mystique, and the
qualities of a suspended moment. You look for the artist’s name at the lower right and
find it: Leo Lélee. Later you learn he’s the originator the local Art Deco style.
All simplicity this composition, and tremendously effective at guiding the
viewer’s eye toward the tantalizing vision of the city on the horizon. In the instant you
wonder: Was Joseph Roth in Arles that summer? And if so, might he have seen this
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 829
poster – even passed these very women on the street? And then it strikes you that it’s
possible, wildly unlikely, but possible, that these elegant yet down-to-earth poster-girls
may still, fourscore years after their swift embrace by the image, remain alive within the
walls of that fantastic city.
you pass them on the street? How would you have known? However will
Clip a squib out of today’s Libération and paste it into your book. Under the
heading Un chiffre (a statistic), comes the information that 30% des Américains ont oublié
September 11 happened. Some displace it to 1999 or 2000, others to 2002 or even later.
Ninety-five percent, however, remember exactly where they were on nine one one.
Hint: Year of the snake.
Welcome to the land of delirium. Yesterday while dozing in your hotel, mid-
afternoon, as the Mistral, almost imperceptibly, and obediently after nine days – three
cycles of three – tapered off into a caressing breeze, you floated over several kinds of
topographies: green and rippled, semi-arid garrigue and a fantastical version of
Tarascon itself, a series of white façades at obtuse angles.
You were aware, but in a referred way, as though heavily tranquilized, of being
in great torment, completely freaked out about the horrors of Lebanon, unable too to see
a way forward in your own life, the road narrowing, and on either side an ugly plunge
toward madness. Yet you lay there in a nearly transparent surround of physical
comfort. And woke to find that Gwen had drawn a picture of you, a delicate rendering:
knees slightly flexed, hands drawn up alongside your face, your expression at once
pained and tranquil.
There is something extraordinary about Gwen’s life drawing. The line is
hesitant, the shading stylized, but there’s an undeniable credibility to the whole – a
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 830
sense of “this is what I see,” that augurs for her future mastery of the form. Katie too
took advantage of your strife-repose by sketching your lower legs and feet – a tour de
force of close observation.
These days, if you allow your eyes to unfocus, an everyday object will take on a
mythic life, or turn to some animal form. Even now, finishing dinner in the hotel
restaurant, having imbibed 25cl of Cotière de Nîmes rouge, you foolhardedly order a
mousse au chocolat. Foolhardy since you’re already pleasantly full. It’s delicious
though and you scrape as much as you can out of bottom of your glass dish, whereupon
the residual stripes of chocolate become a lattice work of iron and you find yourself
staring upward into Le Tour Eiffel’s superstructure from between its legs. “No we’re
never going to survive,” sings Seal, “unless we get a little crazy.”
• • •
So symmetrical the fountain that the mallard ducks turned white in appreciation.
No, not really. But the Temple of Diana, a Roman ruin in the Jardin la Fontaine at
Nîmes, is without doubt the most companionable collection of stones you’ve ever seen.
What’s fallen has fallen. The rest keeps its peace, the goddess’s hunt long over. All old
friends – the collapsed and the standing. What remains of the original structure is an
arch, a large central vault and a warren of smaller ones. Despite its attribution to Diana,
no one really knows why this structure was built here.
Truly though, the fountain for which the garden is named domesticates a force of
nature. It results from sticking pipes down into just the right spot: the ancient spring
worshipped by the Celts – a karstic resurgence of rain water infiltrating the limestone
garrigues to the northwest.
Five thirty. Under the umbrellas of a café, a convocation of five elderly women,
aged roughly seventy to ninety-something. They greet one another with kisses and
laughter. The eldest holds her glass of ice cream aloft as though it is a cup of nectar.
Their collective beauty is of an exponential order. It’s a fine line between madness and
enchantment. Could it be that like the small gray dog one of them owns – Jimmy they
call him – rapturously scenting the air next to the adjacent table, you’ve crossed over?
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 831
stairways that give onto paths and a steeper rock cut escalade around a water fall. The
whole of it designed with great delicacy by an 18th century military engineer. Such
peace here on the northwestern rim of the Mediterranean. A girl, comely, dark-haired,
maybe sixteen, walks beneath the Aleppo pines and cypresses together with a couple
that are undoubtedly her parents. On the girl’s black teeshirt: ALGERIE, spelled out in
Northward ho, by rail from Nîmes to Bourges. A few miles south of Lyons, the
tracks follow the course of a stream. Through the window you spot some folks taking
their midday repast at a table in a wooded glen. One of the picnickers, a solidly-built
fellow in a white shirt, raises his glass of wine and toasts your train as it roars by. Silly
perhaps, but you take the gesture to heart and for a little while at least, your mood
improves. See, France welcomes you. How come you can’t feel at home in your own
By rail again, between Bourges and Tours, you write your final two postcards,
your pen hand making palsied skitters in the swaying train car. Lick the stamps and
put them in place. Nothing more to do than let momentum carry you. Bascule, man.
• • •
St. Martin’s summer. You’d an idea of what it meant, but never knew the
legend. When the saint’s body was ferried up the Loire from Candes to Tours, all along
the route, leaves sprouted along the branches of bare winter trees, plants bloomed,
birds broke into song, and the whole landscape turned verdant.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 832
• • •
One of Katie’s turns of phrase, coined recently, keeps resounding in your head.
You don’t remember what prompted her remark, but she deemed some instance of bad
or mediocre taste “a crime against the senses.”
Mt.-Saint-Michel Abbey. Finally, approaching this icon of a thousand postcards
and picturebooks, this hyper-touristed, once impregnable, heroically engineered and
putatively sacred space, the architecture speaks to you, emphatically affirms Yes, you
solved the riddle. Suddenly unravels the knot of Disneyland, the intractable tangle
you’ve been picking at all these years. Here on the coast of Brittany rises up before you
the living prototype for Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Anaheim and its myriad subsequent
knock-offs – all of which evoke the Heavenly Jerusalem, or rather its wish-fulfillment in
secular form. It’s a rush, however ephemeral, to penetrate the core of a modern myth –
a spell cast upon millions of somnambulists, not by an evil queen, but by their own false
• • •
We did the math, but got our sums wrong. Added when we ought to have
multiplied, subtracted when we should have divided. And, now there is no accounting
for us. No mechanism of balance. Only a reckoning, that will come in its own sweet, or
Sunday early, just before boarding the train St-Malo à Paris, you scan the
headlines in the station’s news kiosk. The British police, quoth the Weekly Telegraph, are
simultaneously investigating “70 Terrorist Plots.” Ah, such are the triumphs of a civil
service ungoverned by any baseline reason. A phobic hall of mirrors in which it is only
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 833
possible to glimpse refracted selves and numberless shadows of the Other. Fear. Gone
• • •
Hôtel du Quai Voltaire. The three of you squeeze yourselves, valises and
backpacks into tiny Roux Combaluzier elevator. You press the button for the troisième
étage and as the door slides shut and the car begins its ascent, home it comes full
measure: You’ve been returning to this place, as often as possible, since you were first
in Paris with Bea and Aunt Gladys in the summer of ‘65. Forty-one years ago. When
you were – Jesus is it possible? – fifteen. One year older than Gwen is now.
In those days, there were two floating swimming pools on the Seine, both
moored on the rive droit, and visible from the window you’ll be looking through as
soon as the key turns in the lock and you walk across the room – the room where Bea
and Gladys slept – to part the curtain. You tried the yellow piscine first and next day,
the smaller, funkier one painted bright red, which you found more congenial. Not least
because the sound system, really just loudspeakers on poles at the corners, played a
never ending mix of French Ye Ye and Anglo-American pop.
Lying on your towel one afternoon, lulled by the sun, the music mediated by
splashing in the pool and the occasional cymbal crash of a diver, you fell into a semi-
doze. What caused your eyes to open suddenly, who knows? But while you’d been
napping a woman had stretched out nearby, dark-haired and thin, black nothing of a
swimsuit, hands clasped behind her head. Nothing in your past, not even ankle
bracelets worn by the Italian girls at the Leroy Street pool had prepared you for
unshaved armpits, flags of liberty unfurled on the barricade – tout chaud – and without
an instant to spare you rolled over on your stomach and stayed there until, by psychic
will alone you managed to redirect your bloodflow to body parts less responsive to
vascular pressure than the one attempting to leverage your hips off the deck.
Meantime, Old Man Helios shone on and you turned your head, forearms folded
beneath your cheek, and closed your eyes again. Attempted to be cool. No one whose
judgment mattered could reach you here. Gladys and Bea, before you parted, said
something about spending the afternoon at a parfumerie. And Jack, safely stateside,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 834
making someone’s life hell, no doubt, but not yours, not now, and just then the speakers
came alive with a gravel-paved baseline: duh duh duh-duh-duh… I – Can’t – Get – No
– duh-duh-duh-duh – Satisfaction…
Overcast today. The Louvre’s still on the opposite bank. Piscines are gone. The
whole embankment’s Paris Plage now. Groovy’s gone global. Gladys was scattered off
Barnegat in 1979. Bea’s container still sits wrapped in its brown box on an upper shelf
in the living room. Up in Vermont, Jack carries on after a fashion, who knows how
Gwen stands next to you, gazing out the window too. Apart from the gray sky,
the view northeast, of Pont du Carousel over the Seine toward the Louvre, looks damn
near the same as the one you painted from the adjacent room two score years ago plus
one. Today, the watercolor hangs on Gwen’s wall near the door to her closet – in your
other city. Something’s different though. In your memory, the ochre walls of the
Louvre were plainly visible beneath the gray roofline, but now they’re hidden,
obscured behind a scrim of trees.
It’s only when you take the elevator downstairs again, the three of you ready to
launch yourselves into the city, that the key turns and the deadbolt slides free. You
could see the Louvre back 1965 because those trees hadn’t yet been planted. Who
knows when they came on the scene? Doesn’t matter. What counts is that once there,
they dug in their roots and grew.
Taxi will take you to the airport in an hour, thence back to NYC. Summer
peregrinations end sitting, en famille, on a bench on the Quai Voltaire. Three of the best
sandwiches in Christendom being munched, bought from the tiny shop on rue des
As at Moody’s diner, seven weeks ago in Maine, a breeze sends the tiny leaves
on the poplars fluttering, turning like thousands of green then green-gray pinwheels.
Crazy, isn’t it, to imagine that this city has contrived a gesture to cheer you on your
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 835
Headed for Le G., pre-coffee, so you’re not quite on the qui vive. Shanksmare,
crossing 23rd Street, you spot a green placard fastened to a lightpole which reads, in
huge white letters: MONEY. And below that, in smaller type: FOR ATTORNEY
GENERAL. Holy cow, that’s a first – at least they’re saying what’s what. But as you
pass the pole you see that its convexity has warped the placard, obscuring two crucial
letters. Darn. MALONEY FOR ATTORNEY GENERAL. Had you going there for a
Saturday. You promised Gwen you’d take her to lunch at New Green Bo, her
favorite dumpling house on Pell Street. Still early for lunch, but when you pull open
the door you see at a glance that the restaurant’s already bustling. Catch the patronne’s
eye. She recognizes you and flashes the most expedient of smiles, scans the back of the
room, then issues her imperative.
Lord, isn’t English a wonder! What other language can distill to verbal
shorthand and still be readily understood? And even in reduction gain in nuance?
Four words is all it takes to step the game along: “Last table ready go!” Her gesture
toward the back of the room seems an afterthought, superfluous.
In case some visiting Martian or future archaeologist wants to make sense of the
New Orleans Cross – the hieroglyph spraypainted on the wall next to the front doors of
thousands of flooded-out homes – here’s the code: The first diagonal means that a
search and/or rescue team went inside. On leaving, they completed the X and used the
resulting quadrants for various categories of information. First, reading clockwise from
the left, the team identified itself in abbreviated form, say, MO-1 for Missouri Task
Force One. In the top quadrant the date of their visit. To the right, possible hazards for
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 836
those following: rats, gas leaks, etc. The bottom quad records the number of bodies
Stephen N. at the café, fresh from Greece with news of the outrage there over the
Israeli actions in Lebanon. How do you turn Christians of all stripes, plus Hindus,
Buddhists, myriad other believers and even some Jews into Islamic radicals? Keep
dropping those cluster bombs and wait.
Mario’s hair has gone gray, almost completely in the space of a few months. You
realize this when you shake hands on the street in front of Le G. before puts on his work
bandana and goes inside. No you don’t know why his hair turned, but rightly or
wrongly you associate it with the tasks he’s recently been charged with beside running
the kitchen. Frequently these days, you don’t see him behind the counter, but rather
sitting at a back table laboring over the account books and sorting through gazillions of
receipts. That’ll do it to anyone.
• • •
First article of a yet to be written compact:
We renounce all fear-based systems of authority.
• • •
WE ARE ALL HEZBOLLAH NOW. A sign carried by a demonstrator in
London. At the time it hardly registered. Where’d you see it? On some TV screen in
one of August’s myriad hotel rooms.
The dome’s down off the basketball courts. Tomorrow’s the day they’ve set for
demolition. Once it was the head building of a pier, and today, sitting out here on the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 837
Frying Pan, its surface rolling with the Hudson’s swells, you can see the flaking-off
letters clearly across its top, white against a graying black band: …MARINE &
AVIATION… BALTIMORE & OHIO RAILROAD….
Is it possible that this moored barge, that once carried freight cars across the river
to the railhead in Jersey, that for a decade has served as a jetty of common land, just
technically offshore, with a salvaged lightship (for which the barge is named) hawsered
along side it, this lily pad for water taxis, party boats, launch site for kayakers, will close
tonight? The plan is that the Frying Pan will relocate north four blocks to a slot on 26th
Street alongside a spanking new recreational pier. In the spring they say, but who
knows? At the pleasure of the state. The state wearing the friendly guise of the Hudson
River Parks Trust, an entity totally immune to public accountability.
Another Rubicon crossed for the city, another blind step away from the good.
Another improvised, people-friendly space foreclosed. The authorities cannot tolerate
these refuges of autonomy and local control, these bits of the city that folks use for
purposes they themselves evolve – islands in a great sea of control – those rare enclaves
of unsecured safety, self-regulating teachers of freedom, of collective authority.
What will folks think tomorrow, September 11, and on the days thereafter?
When they cross Eleventh Avenue and wend their way here, they’ll find – what? A
guard post presiding over a chain link fence topped with ribbon wire and beyond that
their once-familiar, taken-for-granted hangout, desolate of animal life, save for the gulls
• • •
New definition of the noun “park.” Henceforth it means any open space,
nominally grassed, shrubbed and treed, and bordered by high-rises you can’t afford to
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 838
west on a roll, not quite a mile up. Condensation, evaporation, condensation – turning
• • •
“God alone knows the number of the slain.” So says the Mozarabic Chronicle
referring to the slaughter of Christians by Umayyads at the Battle of the River Garonne
A few months later the Franks, led by Charles Martel vanquished the Muslim
armies at Tours. When you visited Tours this past summer, you learned how deeply
the city’s narrative has organized itself around this legendary victory.
Five years ago today – if contemporary chronicles are to be believed – the co-
religious descendents of the warriors vanquished at Tours commandeered four
airplanes and used them to strike considerably further west than Abdul Rahman Al
Ghafiqi, the defeated Umayyad general, could ever have dreamed.
• • •
Eric B. and Erik L. call. The tribe, the tribe. A pentagon of years gone in an
10 p.m. Katie home finally from class. Those dreadful blue lights downtown.
No matter. Ba Gua class tomorrow early, but still you stay up past midnight just to
usher the cycle out, hand the day its coat and hat. It’ll come knocking again next year.
But for now, all quiet on the 9/11 front.
There’s an odd bit of fictionalizing in Unbuilding, David McCauley’s 1980 picture
book about the methods one would use to disassemble the Empire State Building. The
issue of the icon’s deconstruction arises because a certain Saudi prince, Ali Smith,
majority shareholder in the Greater Riyadh Institute of Petroleum, aka GRIP, wants the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 839
Empire State building as a trophy to be displayed the Arabian desert. Predictable
outrage greets his proposal, at least initially. But when Ali Smith sweetens the pot by
offering free oil for the city’s cabs and busses, resistance begins to waver.
“One desperate but clever preservationist,” McCauley writes, “suggested that
the twin towers of the World Trade Center be offered instead – both for the price of the
Empire State. In declining the offer Ali suggested that he would be willing to consider
pulling them down as a goodwill gesture. With this final show of generosity, all
The unbuilding is then carried out by the “renowned New York firm of Krunchit
• • •
Back like a boomerang it comes. Richard Perle – a one man pre-justification for
any future Holocausts – referred, in some organ of opinion you read recently, to the
recent carnage in Lebanon as a “kerfuffle.” White phosphorous bombs. Over a million
cluster “bomblets” of which half remain unexploded.
• • •
December 2001 and Dick Cheney says: “It’s pretty well confirmed that
(Mohammed) Atta did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi
intelligence service… last April. Prague. Sure. Right. And they met in The Castle.
Detroiter Mike Thomas collects dead bodies for the city morgue. He earns $14
per corpse, which factors out to roughly $14,000 per year. A vernacular sociologist, he’s
observed certain patterns of mortality in his subjects. “White people, kill themselves,
Thomas says. “Black people kill each other. Chinese people don’t die.”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 840
Interest rates up? Soon we’ll see, because… Today’s the day the Feddy-bears have
The oil of empathy. Down to 60 Centre Street with Katie to renew her attorney
ID. Pass through security, then follow the signs to Room 116: “OFFICE FOR THE
Katie fills out her forms then, since there’s already a customer in front of the
clerk’s window you wait behind the strip of yellow tape stuck to the floor for queuing
purposes. You can’t hear what the they’re talking about, but just as it seems they’ve
concluded their business, the clerk’s voice cuts above the room noise. “Thanks for your
help,” he says, flashing the departing customer a cordial smile. What an odd place to
discover – deep in this bureaucratic warren – that while you weren’t paying attention,
the world turned upside down.
• • •
At the top of 110 Centre Street, the massive criminal courts building known as
The Tombs, narrow vertical elements finish in a stylized scroll. Never registered these
details before: Ionic capitals so abstracted as to be nearly unreadable. Or are they
meant to symbolize Egyptian lotuses?
• • •
City Center, Midtown. In the streets everywhere, weak-eyed overbuilt men,
armored women hard enough to bounce a quarter off.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 841
the Saudis via French intelligence. Your inner John Wayne, an aspect of yourself you
rarely see, leaps to the fore. That’ll be the day. Save your bells.
Look – over there! A drunk walking steady as she goes. And there – a teetotaler
reeling like a sailor.
Slim and pretty the young traffic cop. She looks fine in blue and she knows it,
runs her silver pick through her hair, all the while using the driver’s side mirror, big as
a soup tureen, of the illegally-parked black Ford Expedition to check out her reflection.
Her partner, a fellow maybe your age, with fewer reasons to consult the looking glass,
and likely not so much hair beneath his cap, writes out the ticket.
It’s 10:25. Maybe you should’ve told driver of the Expedition not to jump the
gun. A posh lady, likely from out of town, she parked in front of you at 10:10 then took
off down the block. Normally, you’d have made the effort to warn her that she might
get a ticket unless she stays in the car until 10:30 when it’s legal – even a couple of
minutes after, ‘cause one never knows when the cops’ll come by. But something
stopped you from intervening. SUV hatred? Bridge and tunnel contempt? Class
hostility? Chronic misanthropy coming to the fore, like an attack of malaria? A
reluctance to risk being dismissed, even by someone you don’t know from Eve? A
weird misplaced revenge on people known and unknown who didn’t extend a kindness
to help you? Or was it something in her manner?
Spinning your wheels, going nowhere. Fact is you didn’t say anything and that’s
that. Suppose you’d called out, ‘Scuse me…. She’d have either listened to you or not. If
she had, you’d never have gotten to see this: the young cop finishes repinning her hair
and clearly pleased with the result, positions her blue cap at a jaunty tilt. Her partner
slides the orange ticket under the windshield wiper. Sixty-five bucks. That’d be a real
bite for you. Who know what it’ll mean to the owner of the Expedition?
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 842
The day is beautiful. The people aren’t. No, that’s not accurate. The sky is blue,
but the atmosphere’s creepy.
Mel has an early gig today, so when she and Jack come by the café, you volunteer
to walk him to school. As you near the entrance, two familiar-looking little girls – third
graders maybe – wave and you almost wave back thinking for half a second that they
are Gwen’s classmates, but then you turn and see they were waving at someone behind
you. Tricks of the mind, tricks of the mind. It’s been six years since Gwen was Jack’s
age. On your way back to Le G., past the playground young voices sound a half
mocking chant. Can’t make out what they’re saying. Sounds like: “You’re eternal,
• • •
Advice to young Hitler: don’t putsch your luck.
• • •
The infernal flame burns above the tomb of the unknown war criminal.
Yesterday the Senate approved the new Pentagon budget – nearly half a trillion
dollars, of which seventy million is earmarked for the further destruction of Iraq. It’s
taken you until this morning to write this down because some infantile part of yourself
hoped it was a nightmare. The worst of it was the margin of the vote itself: one
hundred to zero.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 843
Creepy feeling in the soul these last two days. Hopefully passing.
• • •
Eating squid pro crow.
Chest hurts. Bone deep. Like something or someone hit you hard. Perhaps a
long time ago.
You want to move slowly, if possible not at all. Let nothing disrupt your
mourning. But your grief is marooned in time. Marnie uses multi-colored chalks to
mark up the day’s specials on the hinged slate menu boards outside the café. She
squats to write, then stands, steps back to check out her work. She’s drawn a little car at
the top and the words Le Grainne Café frame it, urge it on with swirling descenders.
There goes the cartoon vehicle on its lined and dotted path – that’s the way, that’s the
way. Onward, ever on.
The shoulder bags hanging in the shopwidows of the wholesale import district
are immense pendulous things that look oddly like bagpipes, minus the pipes. Great
synthetic bladders with ridiculous detailing.
A passing cab’s illuminated rooftop display is plastered with a picture of an
outsized Snickers bar. But where you’d expect to read the brand name, whomever
designed the ad has slugged in the word HUNGERECTOMY. The cab zooms by so
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 844
that’s all you see. No time to figure out whether this is an actual Snickers ad campaign
that’s hit a new and desperate low, or some other emanation from the dark side. Yuck
either way. The surgical excision of hunger. Gross, as Gwen would say.
Postcard to self: Am scattered. And logical.
• • •
The Morgan Library has an exhibition on Bob Dylan’s life and work from 1955 to
1965. Pick up the headphones and hear a live recording, solo acoustic guitar, of “Black
Cross (Hezekiah Jones).”
“You don’t believe in nothin’!”
“Oh yes, I do,” ses Hezekiah,
“I believe that a man ought to be indebted to his neighbors
Not for the reward of Heaven or fear of hellfire.”
“But you don’t understand,” said the white man’s preacher,
“There’s a lot of good ways for a man to be wicked…”
Then they hung Hezekiah Jones high as a pigeon.
White folks around there said, “Well… he had it comin’
‘Cause the son-of-a-bitch never had no religion!”
Writ by Joseph S. Newman and published in a collection of poems, It Could be
• • •
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 845
the sky’s gone hazy white.
Rafiqui’s Halal Halal Chicken & Lamb on the northeast corner of 31st Street and
Broadway. Busy spot this cheerfully painted takeout food stand on wheels serving rice
platters, combo rice platters, salad platters. Every weekday day, rain or shine –
Rafiqui’s arrives at seven a.m., feeds the people, then vanishes when the workday ends.
Provisional as any other of the little resources we’ve come to rely upon. But maybe
more enduring than a lot of restaurants that have to pay the landlord every month.
One block north on Broadway, at this first crossroads of Korea Town, a highrise
rears up – forty stories if you had to guess. Facing downtown, the enormous sign
affixed to the marble façade consists exclusively of Korean letters. On the Broadway
side, beneath the same words is written Woori American Bank in slightly smaller type.
If you were an even a partly American bank, you’d be wooried too. But just how
American is the Woori Bank? Off down the street to meet Gwen, jaunty as you can
make your gait and singing: “It takes a wooried man to sing a wooried song… I’m
worried now, but I won’t be wooried long….” Out of nowhere, a vicious gust tries to
blow whatever’s not nailed down to Kingdom Come. All things provisional in
• • •
Early this a.m., a pair of seagulls swooped north along Ninth Avenue, then dove
abruptly down, nearly into the paths of oncoming cars. They flapped like mad and
gained enough altitude to put themselves out of harm’s way. Disturbing spectacle. The
animals appeared desperate. What possible goodie lying on the tarmac would be worth
such an extraordinary risk? You looked up after them and suddenly, without conscious
intention, found your body shifting into a Ba Gua posture – felt your waist turn left,
arms spiral up and around in the gesture they call lone goose leaves the flock.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 846
Gwen neologism: “Uncovery.”
• • •
Are any of those VBIED’s (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices) that
cause so many American casualties rolling along the highways of Iraq on tires made in
And since when have acronyms gone mild? In news stories you’ve read, the
military has begun to refer to roadside bombs as EFP’s, for Explosively Formed
Penetrators. Having been formed by explosions, what then do the penetrators do? Sit
around waiting for something to penetrate? What purpose is served by tying the
subject-object relationship in a knot, and attempting to neutralize the presence of
human actors from the physics of warfare?
At some point will IED – which implies the presence of human subjects and
objects at every level – get dropped from the lexicon altogether? As the carnage
mounts, does it become necessary to evolve an evermore abstract language of
• • •
New York Times appoints itself the official house organ of Bizarro
World – that nightmarish place in which meaning fractures along incommensurable
angles, and its shards reflect back on themselves as a thousandfold madness. Two
headlines on the same front page, one right after the other: “Anti-U.S. Attack Videos
Spread on Web.” Cited as chief culprit among the purveyors of these clips, whose bad
taste borders on treasonous is YouTube, the online video archive. But then in the next
headline: “Google in Talks to Acquire YouTube for $1.6 Billion.”
The bylines are for two different reporters. But maybe it’s worth checking to see
if their names are anagrams. It’d be comforting if there were a DaVinci code behind all
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 847
this. A real Conspiracy with a capital C. But probably there’s nothing to decipher, no
hidden agenda – just simple anomie, doing its out-of-the-body, mindless thing.
a.m. Does it really take a crew of seven, no eight, not counting the stunt driver,
plus all those cops to clear the way ahead, to film a taxicab swerving down Ninth
Avenue? Take after take. Why not use a clip from one of the other myriad times that
essentially the same scene has been shot? Silly question. God abides in the details, you
Philistine. Every chase scene possesses subtleties, singularities even, that distinguish it
from all others. No matter how perfunctory the concept behind the movie, the surface,
must have its own, ever so slightly customized texture. The narcissism of small
differences, as Papa Freud put it.
And here you sit, outside Le G., watching nothing happen, over and over again
in the tepid slate gray air. The rattan bench isn’t exactly comfortable, and there’s your
orange bicycle, leaning against that pole, almost beckoning you to ride it home. But
you’re too inert to imagine getting up. Between Iraq and a hard place.
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