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Times, the Times. Leading Sunday’s Book Review: “Cormack McCarthy’s
new novel imagines the end of the civilized world.”
Wow, wotta concept! But it’ll never happen. Just the wild machinations of some
fiction writer, pulling our chain.
But wait – this just in: Warning Shots Fired Along Tense Korean Border. Uh-oh.
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – Gunfire rang out Saturday along the heavily armed no man’s land
separating the divided Koreas, as regional tensions mounted in anticipation of communist North
Korea’s plan to test its first atomic bomb.
South Korean soldiers fired about 40 shots as a warning after five North Korean soldiers
crossed a boundary in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two country’s forces, South Korean
military officials said.
It was unclear whether the North Korean advance was intended as a provocation, or was
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 848
• • •
Not every day a contemporary painting blows your doors off: Wang Dongling’s
immense brushwork on paper at the Met, circa 1995. Raw power. Deep nuance. A
hundred thousand tones of white and black. Reminds you of a Franz Klein in some
respects, and a wildly rendered ideogram form in others, yet the image feels utterly
Up at the Morgan, looking over some venerable manuscripts and prints in search
of a beautiful moment you come upon a passage Leopold Mozart wrote about his son’s
piano concerto in C Major, K-476.
“Indeed the new concerto is astonishingly difficult… several passages do not
harmonize unless one hears all the instruments together…”.
Something went boom over there in North Korea. Strong enough to rattle the
seismometers. But whether it was an A-bomb or just the mass detonation of the late
John Gotti’s July 4th fireworks arsenal – confiscated by Giuliani back in ’95 and
unaccounted for ever since – well, who can say?
• • •
This a.m., to the café, Alan brings his newly-purchased copy of The 9/11 Report:
A Graphic Adaptation. Check out the front, then read the back cover. Seem to be a
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 849
sincere attempt on the part of two comic book artists to faithfully translate the
Terrorism Commission’s text into broadly accessible pictorial form along the lines of the
Classics Illustrated series you loved as a kid. Flip through. Here’s a full page close-up
of Rummy in tones of gray, like a face hewn from Mt. Rushmore. A medium shot of
wild-eyed Mohammad Atta, hands raised and clawing the air in the iconic gesture of
the timeless fanatic.
BLAMM! A plane hits the Pentagon. RRUMBLE! The first tower falls. Your
laughter erupts hard and unbidden. Alan looks worried, as though he fears you’ve lost
your mind. Don’t you see how absurd this is? you nearly blurt, but instead hold your
tongue. Roy. Roy! C’mere boy – you gotta see this.
Ah Bartleby, ah Rashomon. Yesterday afternoon around three thirty, some saw a
plane, others a helicopter, but whatever species of aircraft, it plowed into the north side
of a high-rise residential tower on 72nd off York near the East River. A fireball, then
wreckage cascading onto the street.
Though all the news reports agreed on the location, the building was reported in
the Times, Post, Daily News and myriad TV broadcasts as being variously 40, 42, 50 and
52 stories tall. And depending on one’s source, the plane hit any number of floors
between twenty and forty-something.
Whatever its true height or the exact point of impact, the Belaire, a collection of
two hundred condominiums, was immediately overshadowed by a tower of ambiguity
far taller than any developer could ever claim air rights to.
Different trajectories and a whole range of behaviors were attributed to the
aircraft. Some saw it “sputtering” and “trying to avoid the building,” while others
described it hooking round as though to “deliberately” strike the north face.
The sound of the impact could constitute an entire glossary of onomatopoeia.
One person heard a loud crack, another a sound like “a hundred fender-benders.” A
dozen people offered varying interpretations of the sound of falling glass hitting the
sidewalk. Nor was the uncertainty about particular aspects of the event confined to
consistent, if divergent, narratives. A woman interviewed soon after the crash qualified
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her story even as she told it: “It seemed like the chopper was pointed downward, but I
could be proven wrong…”
Then too, for hours after the fire was put out, several TV channels broadcast
images of a raging conflagration: flames pouring from shattered windows, smoke
swirling into the sky, while on the ground firefighters and policemen shooed
bystanders away from the scene. Amidst all the visual distraction, one could easily fail
to register the tiny letters at the bottom of the screen: “Earlier Today.”
A reporter for Channel 11 news seemed to have found an almost DaVinci Code-
like significance in the notion that the black scorch marks on the face of the building
resemble a giant “S.”
In the intervening rotation of the earth, the media cobbled together a few solid
points of narrative unanimity: t’was a plane they say, a single-engine Cirrus,
purportedly a high-performance aircraft. The pilot, a former NY Yankees pitcher, died
in the crash, along with his flight instructor. No other fatalities were reported nor,
miraculously, any injuries, though one eyewitness claimed, just before the accident, to
have seen a body fall out of the plane and into East River. Icarus?
• • •
He visto cosas claras que no son verdad, wrote Antonio Machado kan ya makan. I
have seen things clearly that are not true. Oh, but the tentacles of imagination are long.
Google meet Breughel. Breughel meet Google. Inbox, outbox, shitbox. Google
takes over three floors of the former Port Authority building. Chelsea Now claims that’s
three hundred thousand square feet, which scarcely seems possible, but may well be
given that the building takes up an entire city block. “Good night!” as Bea used to say
when something wowed her. How many zeroes and ones do you suppose can fit into a
space that size?
Six blocks north on 22nd Street and Eighth, the Allerton Hotel is due to be
transformed into condominiums. Oh the ghosts. “Hotel’s Stay is Over,” says the
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selfsame local paper above a snapshot-sized photo of the Allerton’s marquee, beneath
which, a woman, her head wrapped in a do-rag emerges onto the street. “…Long
considered a neighborhood blight…” quoth the caption.
Ah, just what scribal journalism excels at: highly questionable sentiment served
up as common knowledge. Does whomever wrote that line have the slightest idea how
long tropes like “neighborhood blight” have been used to remove protection from
people’s habitations – to move folks one step toward displacement – by setting their
dwellings apart, quarantined by language, from the healthy ones. How numbingly
repetitive that phrase has become, pressed into service so many times to construct a
specious Us, the long considering pillars of the community who now stand in judgment
on the expendable Them, the blighted ones. The evil of banality, reliable as a Timex in
the (often secret) service of fear and greed.
You figured it was all over for the Allerton when a year or so ago its annex on
the south side of 23rd Street between Eighth and Ninth was emptied of residents,
gutted, then knocked down more or less brick by brick by an eternally dust-coated crew
of men with hammers. Primitive stuff. It took forever to achieve a field of rubble, but
the old gray building’s daylight now.
How long before you read “Penn South Co-ops, Long Undervalued, Sell for a
Cool Five Billion”? Good night! Or just “Shoot me,” as Bruce would say.
It’s hitting you now, blow for blow. You don’t recall exactly, but this must’ve
been the season, or close to it, when Jack threw you and your mother out. You and Bea
lived for a little while in a hotel, the Brittany, on Broadway and 11th Street. Converted
to apartments years ago. If they’re not condos by now, you’ll eat Grace Church.
What hurts isn’t so much the loss of the home you grew up in per se. It’s that
your father built all these useful, often beautiful things: lamps out of galvanized pipes
and joints, and chairs, sofas, coal bins, your bedframe, a magnificent arch of cubical
shelves that gave your six by six bedroom amazing storage capacity, even your
nightlight with a sheet of tin he let you cut with shears tacked on to shield the glare.
Then he blew it all away.
What a tough thing it is to stay rooted, feet planted, when all around bodies are
heading underground and spirits spiraling outasite. Some you never met but would’ve
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liked to. Pontecorvo for instance. Died yesterday. Battle of Algiers. Qeimada, Burn. He
was Jewish, the obituary says. Things you never knew. But then, of course.
a.m. On the table in Dr. Worell’s examining room, a can of HurriCaine, no joke.
A brand of topical anesthetic spray.
• • •
p.m. On the downtown B-as-in-boy train, a kid maybe sixteen, half sprawled in a
stylistic hip torpor. He wears a gray hooded sweatshirt. Slip-on black sneakers too.
Imprinted in on the fabric where the tongues would be, high-contrast images you
immediately recognize as Che Guevara in his classic high-contrast Viva La Revolucion
pose. Except that the heads beneath the red berets are bright white skulls.
Is something being uttered here? A message to interpret? Or just more babel
that’s forgotten why it tried to reach the moon?
What was it Dalí said in his manifesto eighty-odd years ago? Something like:
WE DENOUNCE the absolute lack of youth of our youth…
The Alpha-bidder beats back some other major piggies – Apollo, Vornado,
Lehman Brothers, Related Companies – to dive nose-first into the trough and scarf up
all hundred and ten buildings of Stuy-town and Peter Cooper Village. A tenant’s
syndicate also loses out, coming in a yard shy of the highest offer: $5.4 billion.
That’s the story, Jerry. Speyer beware.
“All is possible,” says Fuentes, “but all is in doubt.”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 853
• • •
“It is better,” says the anonymous author of letters from the symposion, “to be
fucked in Athens than beaten in Sparta.” Or so the young slave learns.
• • •
Surely you’ll find something for Alane and Clive’s newborn here. This
BuyBuyBABY superstore sells everything from “germ-free humidifiers” to “singing
pianos” to “discovery” balls and interactive potty seats. And they’ve got a killer
tagline, prominently displayed: The complete solution from birth. You read this, then
laugh, laugh again, like bitter coffee repeating. What exactly is the spread between
complete and final? Is this some copywriter’s sick joke, or another unwitting micro-
manifestation of Br’er Friedrich’s Eternal Return?
• • •
Tom C.’s pal Gerry Geller died last night. Seventy years plus a month or so old.
Pneumonia, then a heart attack. Of which he’d had several before.
Tomorrow he’d have been sentenced for his part in a bank robbery back in ’71,
for which he never got caught. In his years on the lam he worked mostly as a short-
order cook, and most recently domiciled at the last remaining flophouse on the Bowery.
A year or so ago, he turned himself in order to get medical care. Things looked good
for his sentencing – it was unlikely he’d have had to go in.
Gerry was Jewish, from Brooklyn. A copious reader, autodidact. When he
surfaced, Maureen saw a news item about him and nudged Tom into making contact.
After which it was only a matter of time until Gerry realized he had found the person to
hold his story – his legacy. The bonds of friendship grew quickly. Maureen had gone
so far as to wrangle a reservation for the three them to celebrate, post-sentencing, at
Tom figured he’d have to write the book as fiction, felt a certain urgency in
getting it out quickly while Gerry was around. Now the field opens up. The subject’s
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 854
gone, and with him, a host of narrative and personal constraints. The story’s free to
come out any way it wants to go.
• • •
Snatch of cellphonia heard en passant: “She finally figured a way to get out of
boot camp.” This from a youngish fellow. Hard to say more, it being dusk.
Head upstate to visit ex-sister-in law Donna and her daughter, niece Laura, near
Schenectady. It’s a cliché, but as you drive the along the top of the Palisades, you feel
your insides soaking up the fall colors as though there’s been a drought. If you were a
dog, you’d jump out the car window and romp in the leaves.
Late morning and afternoon spent at the sheep and wool festival in Rhinebeck.
An animal event at heart, organized around sheep of diverse breeds: Leisters,
Rambouillets, Oxfords, Merinos, not to mention a fair sampling of goats, llamas, alpacas
Katie’s weaver friend buys three huge bags of fleece to spin and dye. You’ve
dug your hands into the dense, greasy backs of the living wool-carriers, caressed a
hundred rovings and as many yarns. Like a surge from beneath the layering of
yesterdays leaf hues, the stimulations nearly overwhelm you. Though it’s been a
temperate day, you arrive back home feeling windburned, sick to the stomach, yet
weirdly energized. Katie reviews the caller ID before you listen to the answering
machine and says there’s a message from cousin Jane. Now you really feel ill. Can’t be
good news and it’s not. In her even therapist’s voice, slightly roughened by the
intervening technology, you hear Jane say that Cousin Robert died Friday night.
Fortunately, she was with him.
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enough to prompt him to seek a diagnosis. He was one of the working class Brit-type
Dartons who live by the credo: don’t go to the doc unless it’s falling off. The cancer
they found was inoperable, but they offered him chemotherapy. It didn’t shrink any
masses, but made him sick as a dog. No real pain management until his last day, when,
unable to walk or hold anything down, he was admitted to the hospital.
There are lean and chunky Dartons and when younger, Robert had, like his
father Arthur, your father Jack and you, tended toward the former build. A decade
older than you, more or less, and separated by family seismics, you couldn’t have spent
more than a total of forty hours with Robert over the course of both your lives. But
particularly in recent years, as you’d come to know and get closer to Jane, you’d felt a
connection to her slightly older brother, the one she swore saved her life and sanity.
Robert was among the handful of Dartons who showed up when Michael,
Danny and Marsha’s son, was Bar Mitzvah’d in Queens, late in 2001. You sat next to
one another and, waiting for the ceremony to get under way, asked about his teaching.
He was, as always, fired up about his students. Invariably spoke of the latest crop as
the best. Working on a new book? He asked. Your reply cut short by the emergence on
stage of Michael and his rabbi.
A few minutes later, during a Hebrew passage neither of you could understand,
Robert nudged you and leaned over. “One favor,” he asked.
Bits of people, including some long bones – not so dry – discovered in hidden
pockets of ground zero, both in a manhole and, as the Times puts it “in underground
areas that apparently were overlooked during earlier excavations.” It seems that last
Thursday, Phoenix Contractors, a firm hired by the city to clean sludge from drains
under the corner of West and Vesey Streets made the initial finds that touched off a
wider search for additional troves of remains.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 856
the construction beat goes on. World Trade Center Families for Proper Burial want
work to stop. Their members speak a more urgent and primal tongue. CNN quotes a
woman whose brother died in the towers on September 11: “I’m a mom, I’ve got a 2-
year-old, and I’ve a 4-year-old, and their bones, and their teeth, and their hair, and their
skin, and their eyeballs are all precious to me. You couldn’t put a price on that. And as
human beings, we should not put a price on it.”
• • •
You say Osama and I say Obama. Let’s call the whole thing off.
• • •
A crane blocks 25th Street at the corner of Eighth. Onto the roof of a low-rise
building housing a nail salon on the ground floor, another massive piece of telecom
equipment descends from a cable, as though from heaven. That roof is already a thicket
of electronic units, bouncing who knows what waves where. Just next door, workmen
are gutting the ground floor of another old tenement. Some with masks, some without,
none with hardhats, the procession of laborers drags out plastic bagsful of masonry,
punctured and leaking, then sling them, one after the other, into the curbside dumpster
and return for more. The only light inside the demo area comes from the punched-out
windows at the building’s front and rear. Primitive divestiture.
Full frontal page one of the Gray Lady. On the left side, Ford Motor reports $6
billion in losses. On the right, the stock market’s brave erection: 12,111 at the closing
bell. To say nothing of Baghdad. Nothing.
Speak in suspended sentences. The world will last longer.
• • •
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 857
Khimars, head scarves, silky things. In Europe, the political class draws lines in
the sand and builds walls with them. Yet as All-hallow-even and Day of the Dead draw
nearer, the veil gets thinner. More chimerical.
• • •
On the subway, Old Bear dozes, almost falls sideways. Then she rights herself
for an instant, eyes open, without precisely waking up. Got to curl up soon for the
winter. Hibernation times icumen in.
Nearly six score years ago, in the days before a Mickey D had sprouted on every
other corner, New York played host to more live cows than you could shake a stick at.
How do you know? Because last night, from far away Byzantium, a friend emailed you
a paper she’d come across on a list-serve written by a Latin American scholar, Laurie
Anne Lomas: “Imperialism, Modernization, and the Commodification of Identity in
José Marti’s ‘Great Cattle Exposition.’”
You’ve read several pieces from Martí’s New York exile – they’ve gone straight
to your internal ur-text file – but never came across this one before. What Lomas has
translated of this opus is just astonishing: it’s a work full of rage, bottled up and
foaming, tinctured with mythical, almost mystical associations. At times, Martí’s
imagery approaches, then holds back at the threshold of the hallucinogenic, as though
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