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before a barbed-wire fence. A quality which echoes the actuality of the moment then
unfolding in the once-wild west. For by the time of the Exposition, deer and antelope
played ever less upon the range, and the days of free-roaming cattle were nearly over.
In his notes, Martí imagined himself as a bull, trapped in the U.S. (Department of
Agriculture?!) slaughterhouse. Still he believed it necessary to study “the means and
tendencies of the nation so as to evade them, despite their force, as one evades a mortal
blow.” As for his life in New York City, “Everything, at least for several years of my
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 858
life… ties me to this cup of poison.” According to Lomas, “The only place [Martí] can
craft language, practice his politics and make a living is inside the monster’s entrails.”
Thus, Martí betook himself to Madison Square Garden – which, in 1887, stood in
close proximity to the park also named for the monster’s fourth president – to report
upon the Great Cattle Exposition. He toured the hall, making respectful note of the
stolid, milk-machine-like Holsteins before homing in on Eurotas, a prize Jersey cow.
Possessed by her splendor, he waxed erotic, offered up a paean to “the loose jointing of
her hinds, so that the udder’s delicate nipples can play freely.” To Martí’s eye, she
seemed “suspended negligently on her clean bed of sawdust, a preoccupied damsel
who dispassionately awaits the gallant hour.”
What taurine prince could possibly make a worthy match for such a magnificent
creature? “Suddenly, the music stops: the edges of the corral become crowded:
applause resounds: now they will parade the triumphant bull, the beautiful bull of
[New] Jersey, ‘Pedro.’ It may be childish, but corralled on all sides by the English
language, it was a pleasure that this winner might be called ‘Pedro!’”
But then Martí delves deeper, and older. For “as the foamy milk spills with the
sound of the song into the containers, and as they close the doors of the fair, ‘Pedro’
passes from one side of the circus to the other, followed by a crowd of stableboys: the
shadow makes him gigantic; the group drags on the ground the stick that guides him:
the youths, from one side to the other, move without speaking, with a pride in
accompanying him: all the Jersey cows lift their heads in the last light. With his black
body covered with sacred roses, Apis descended with no less pomp when the priest
brought him down to the river amidst chanting and incense, as the moon set over the
Still whirling from Martí’s prose, you look up the Apis legend and learn that in
certain tellings, Apis’s mother was an incarnation of Ptah, Egypt’s primordial mound,
also known as “the opener of the mouth,” who called the world into being, having
dreamt creation in his heart. His father, it is said, was a moonbeam. And to think, all
this happened, and more, layer upon layer, once upon a time in New York.
• • •
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 859
the flop at 197 Bowery, where for lo these many years Gerry was known as George.
Change trains, staircase to the lower level of the West 4th Street stop. Rebounding
around the station, a no-nonsense female voice made harsh by the crappy PA. Not
once, but twice: “Conductor Thomas, please report to the tower.”
• • •
Whew, Chrysler only lost $1.5 billion.
• • •
Funny thing you’d heard years ago came up again in conversation. Apocryphal,
but hey. Zhou Enlai to Kissinger: “It’s much too early to tell the result of the French
Anything is plausable.
“Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris.” So said Oliver Wendell Holmes
or Thomas Gold Appleton circa 1858. Lord, you hope they’re right and that the
description fits you. Long as it’s not Paris circa 2006.
Fall back. You make a partnership with the onrushing dark. Around five, take
out your binoculars, open the bedroom window wide, change into a turtleneck – the
wind is cold – put Paolo Conte on the speakers and gaze out at your city. The things
you see, the book of changes. A barge moored down in the bay. Wow, that’s a huge
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 860
crane, its angled cantilever higher than the top of 7WTC, now that you see it close up.
It’s been idle today, Sunday. Weekdays, there must be some action in the Hole.
Move your focus east. Visible between taller structures, you glimpse a shape
unto itself, first imprinted in your eye as a child: one of the silvery “funnels” atop the
Washington Square Village “ocean liners.” Each liner possessed two funnels – though
they weren’t really smokestacks, just water towers wrapped in rippled metal cladding
to disguise their mundane natures. Nor were the structures they rested upon ships, but
instead a pair of vast, parallel NYU faculty housing blocks built to resemble,
superficially, Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse. Back in the late ‘50s you watched these
twin behemoths getting built from your stoop just across West Broadway and at the
time they reminded you, as they still do, of the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth
moored side by side.
This evening, from your window, you can’t be certain which ocean liner this
funnel belongs to. It takes a bit of figuring, but eventually you logic out that given your
sightline, what you’re seeing is the west funnel of the northernmost liner. But the liner
is blocked from view by other buildings, so at this distance, the funnel looks more like a
little house from outer space trying to appear inconspicuous in a surround of
overbearing terrestrial forms.
Sun’s fading fast. Near halfmoon over One Fifth Avenue. Sweep across to the
great flank of the Port Authority building. Without trying, your binoculars pick out de
stijl-like blocks of color popping out of a white swath of wall on the fourth or fifth floor.
Got to be. Yes, there’s the logo, or the last bit of it, two feet high at least, visible through
the windows: a blue “g,” green “l,” red “e” against a brilliant white background.
Clever idea – this way employees won’t forget where they are. Banks of desks in the
foreground. Lights on, but no one home by the looks of it. Even Google must rest
• • •
This morning, after breakfast, you installed Gwen’s spacious, capacious new
desk. Baltic birch, cut to size by Tony C. After which you sanded, stained it deep red –
Gwen’s choice to go with her just-painted Rosy Blush (Benjamin Moore) walls. Endless
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 861
coats of poly with sandings in between. Shlepped home by mom and dad, corners
carefully swathed in bubble wrap. “Platinum” legs screwed on. Sliding panel mounted
underneath for keyboard and graphics tablet. The desk’s owner proclaims it “sexy,”
even allows you to take a picture of her working away on a new drawing. How much
better does it get than that?
Dry as a bone out today. Yet as you cycle café-ward, every breath feels like green
water, thick with salt. Gulping down the air of madness.
You and Tom do your damndest to buck eachother up in the face of a host of
erosions. “And it’s so awful out there,” he says, meaning perhaps Oaxaca con jackboots,
but he’s got to go uptown and it’s time for you to move the car, thinking as you wave à
bientôt that today, right now, all states have gone rogue. Rogue as any terroristic cell or
organism. The difference inheres in the deadly fiction of sovereignty within political
boundaries. As was said of the Prussians once: an army with a country, or something
like that. Now its clear as day that states don’t just want a monopoly on violence, they
want an exclusive on nihilism too. Can I get a witness?
Here comes Marnie, long-limbed, hair up under a tweed cap, her affect
maximally perky. If this was a diner, she’d shoot pots of regular and decaf from each
hip. You bavarde for a few moments and she spins round to go prepare your café
allongé. You almost asked her for un café l’étranger, the bitter brew that wakes one up
The first Marine went over the top. Parlez vous?
• • •
Your girls both out late. All alone. The only thing that will save you from
madness tonight is to play Amadou et Miriam – le couple aveugle de Mali – as loud as the
little speakers sitting on your desk will allow. You’ll cop to it. You turn to, even grasp
desperately at what’s beautiful, powerful, in visual art, music, writing, reading, not
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 862
because you love it in some abstract sense, but because it’s never yet failed to catch you,
offer you a moment of traction on the slippery slope.
J’ai au Manhattan fast-food Dakar Sénégal cinéma le Paris
Ascenseur pour le ghetto
Il est minuit à Tokyo
Il est cinq heures au Mali
Quelle heure est-il au Paradis?
…It’s midnight in Tokyo
Five a.m in Mali
What time is it in Paradise?
Stories off the rack. Prêt-à-porter. What looks good on me at the party tonight
gets returned tomorrow.
Veil feels more diaphanous than ever. Less substantial than gauze. Souls
reaching across. No divide.
• • •
NYU releases a study on why so many kids in the South Bronx get hospitalized
for asthma. Part of the story: the Cross Bronx, Major Deegan, Bruckner and Sheridan
expressways, and the Bronx River Parkway all run through or around the South Bronx.
One-fifth, más o menos, of students in the area, from pre-K to through 8th grade attend
schools located within 500 feet, or about two blocks, of major highways. Thank Moses,
Robert, for the gift that keeps on giving. But, of course, being a New York situation,
• • •
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 863
• • •
Out of the tar pit of memory it comes. 1967 – the Gamble and Huff tune that was
a big hit the Soul Survivors:
The expressway’s not the best way
At five o’clock it’s much too crowded.
Much too crowded, so crowded…
That’s the tune a million boom boxes ought to play the day anyone thinks of
rehabilitating Robert Moses.
• • •
Beyond the imagination of any absurdist: The Pentagon issues an “Index of Civil
Conflict” for Iraq – a colored graphic that shows the situation shifting along a spectrum
from the blue of Peace to the red of Chaos. Who else but Americans could dream up
metrics like this? Social catastrophe as a mood ring.
Times for its part, weighs in by describing the military commanders’ state of
mind with the tiredest, silliest trope in the West: growing concern.
Bad eggs all, in one basket.
Suggestion: rename that other party the Demo-cats.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 864
• • •
You’re perched high on the stoop of a brownstone on 22nd, keeping your eye on
the gray ghost, waiting for her parking spot to turn legal. Sun’s come out though the
step is still damp. Pull out Li Zi Ming’s Ba Gua manual. On each rereading, more to
Discern the false and true of the situation.
No matter how great his force, as he attacks I evade by turning and revolving to get close
to his side.
The Qi of the upper and lower cannot separate from the center.
strike no pose, hold no posture, leave no opening.
An unassuming fellow in navy blue workman’s clothes ambles past. There’s a
logo printed in white on the back of his jacket: Ultimate Power Corp. Piercing the
lettering on a sharp diagonal, a lightning bolt.
• • •
Until someone proves otherwise it looks like this: Alyssa Peterson, aged 27, an
Arabic-speaking Army specialist from Flagstaff, AZ, of Mormon conviction, couldn’t
handle torturing prisoners in Iraq. On September 15, 2003, she died from a “non-hostile
weapons discharge” – her service rifle – apparently in her own hands. The note she left
contained the ironic comment that her suicide prevention training had taught her how
to kill herself.
For ten hours yesterday and into this morning, a six hundred-pound bull,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 865
escaped from a slaughterhouse, roamed the streets of Newark. Eventually, an animal
control officer, originally from South Africa, but perhaps reincarnating an ancient
Cretan, corralled him in the parking lot of a tool and die shop. Lasso, then tranquilizer
injection. See, it’s that simple. “He was a little wild,” said Denton Infield, patting the
bull’s flank. “But he’s asleep, now.”
• • •
Israeli troops open fire on women serving as human shields before a Gaza
mosque. See, it’s that simple. At least two dead. Who know how many wounded.
• • •
Last Tuesday, Ramiro Jara, a 25 year-old Ecuadorian construction worker fell
fifteen stories from an apparently faulty scaffold near Union Square. In the wake of his
death, Bloomie’s convened a task force to “improve safety and governmental oversight”
of scaffolding citywide.
Times cites an OSHA finding that “Hispanic workers who do not speak
English are more likely to be involved in fatal construction accidents than workers who
do.” In light of which, the Buildings Department plans to send inspectors out to fan
across the length and breadth of Gotham carrying cards with Spanish translations of
phrases like “you will not be terminated for reporting an injury.” Yes, certainly, that
will bring a world of change.
• • •
On billboards and posters, amidst a collaged skyline, a bottle of Dasani (a Coca
Cola company) water stands tall, beaded with condensation. The slogan too is tailored
for the local market: The City That Makes Your Mouth Water.
But how, O best beloveds, to slake ye spirituall drought?
• • •
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 866
Happy as a bird, free as a clam.
• • •
Literally, it means “Englishman.” Eventually it came, for Indian Muslims, pre-partition,
to stand for arbitrary colonial power.
Wake up wondering: How much essence of Afghani poppy ends up flowing
down catheters into the veins of wounded American soldiers?
• • •
This evening and for several sunsets past: la fête des nuages.
Early p.m. Pattern of the clouds over Greenwich Village something like the shell
of a pallid tortoise, flattened bits of pieced-together pie dough, or the stonework on the
outside walls of diners in the suburbs. The grouting of this vapor mosaic is the blue sky
Ah, the wondrous imagistic usages of “political” as a modifier. As in, “The
Democrats are just playing political football with that issue.” Time out, someone’s
moving the goalposts. Or better yet: “Senator so-in-so is fighting for his political life…”
There stands the knight on the field of honor, disarmed but for a busted sword, his
shield hewn to smithereens. Drama drama drama. The metaphor’s the message.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 867
I like oysters cold
and my garden of mixed flowers
and the sky full of towers
and traffic in the streets
and Maillard’s sweets
and Bendel’s clothes
and Nat Lewis hose…
A partial list of Florine Stettheimer’s avowed favorite things, circa 1930.
• • •
And, if the Democrats gain house or houses? Will we not still be a rogue empire,
incapable of signing international accords unless they’re about making someone else
poorer? Alone with Somalia, we refuse to accede to the Convention on the Rights of the
Child. Nor to the Kyoto Protocols, the Land Mines Convention, the Comprehensive
Test Ban Treaty, nor the Rome Treaty establishing an international criminal court, nor
the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which would compromise our
prerogative to execute children.
Sure, at some level your outrage is all about Jack, who cultivated his own
delusory sovereignty – made up his own rules of disengagement. With a father like
that, how could you feel sanguine within the bosom of Patrie? Still there’s the thing
itself – stuffed to bursting with it’s own great isolation and unawareness.
• • •
Intrepid stuck in the mud. Built in 1943, the carrier served in the Pacific during
WWII, and also the Korea and Vietnam wars. The Intrepid Four were, far as you know,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 868
the first Navy men to go awol – in Sweden was it? – in protest against that latter war.
In 1981, with Reagan busy reclaiming imperialism as the true national pastime,
the Intrepid – bound for the scrapyard – was bought by a real estate developer. Since
then, she has served as a floating museum of American militarism, moored next to a
Hudson River pier in the high west forties, her flight deck bristling with evermore
advanced – is that the word? – flying weapons of destruction.
Slated for a $60 million renovation at a Bayonne shipyard, the tugs came to tow
her, but that deep, suctionny, estuary mud clung fast to the ship’s four massive screws,
and won. What to do, what to do? Oh baby.
• • •
Now you’re talking
But where’s your soul?
So crooned Bryan Ferry to a gliding Roxy Music backbeat kan ya makan.
Another keeper headline on the print edition of the Times. In banner type, about
as large as AMERICA UNDER ATTACK, their September 10th gift to posterity, the rag
o’ record declares: DEMOCRATS TAKE THE HOUSE.
• • •
So exhausted by the week though it’s only halfway done, you get through your
first late afternoon conversation of the season with Wolfgang on tea and adrenaline
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 869
alone. At one point, he uses the words “hopeless non-perspectives.”
Hours later the phrase still plays in your memory, shorn of its historical moment.
The phrase feels very now.
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