September 3 – Le G. – Early Morning
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- September 5 – Le G. – Early Morning
- September 8 – Claryville, NY
- October 16 – 50th Street Eighth Avenue – Early Morning
- November 6 – Uptown C Train – Midafternoon
- November 8 – Intersection of 24th Street Eighth Avenue – Midmorning
- December 6 – Le G. – Midmorning
- December 8 – Le G. – Evening
- December 14 – Chelsea Streets – Midmorning
- December 19 – Downtown C Train Approaching West 4th Street – Early Evening
- December 21 – Late Afternoon – Dr. Johnson’s Office
September 3 – Le G. – Early Morning
Newspaper accounts of the plans to close Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island
resonate with nostalgia and a hint of pride at the sheer volume of crap the city has
generated. Visible from space, domical like an ancient volcano, Fresh Kills spreads
three thousand acres – four times the area of Central Park. What’s the plan now that the
time’s run out? Ship the garbage by barge to a railhead across the Hudson where the
township’s glad to take it off our hands for a price, thence dispersed to points west and
south. Fill up them old mineshafts in the coal fields. Who knows, maybe some disused
ICBM silos too. Twentyfour seven, the trucks rumble west along Canal Street, dump
their loads, then turn around for more.
In the movies life is beautiful, but in Gotham, it’s the real estate that’s drop dead
gorgeous. “Welcome,” the Post headline reads, “to the Skyscraper Bazaar.” Every
charismatic commercial building, every “marquee” and “postcard” property,
Rockefeller Center, Lever House, CityGroup, the WTC, is changing partners, waltzing
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 87
the next market uptick and wannabees hot to get in on the top floor.
But the tune’s turning frenetic, the tempo racing ahead of the steps. Says realtor
Mary Ann Tighe, “We’ve entered a place where no one knows where we’re going.”
By first boat of the day out to the Statue of Liberty with Gwen. The instant the
gangplank dropped, the two of you raced all the way to the crown ahead of everyone,
looked up the arm at the great torch, and out over the harbor. Now you explore the
museum at the base, searching for the Emma Lazarus plaque. Got to be here
“Look!” she says, points out over the mezzanine balustrade. She has spotted the
original torch, copper strips woven and riveted together, rising from the center of the
atrium. Together you read the placard, a headline from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated
Newspaper, October 15, 1887, price 10 cents:
LIBERTY’S LIGHT A LURE TO DEATH – THOUSANDS OF BIRDS, BLINDED
AND KILLED BY THE FLAME IN THE STATUE’S HAND – THIRTEEN HUNDRED
AND SEVENTY-FIVE PERISH IN A SINGLE NIGHT.
The accompanying exhibit note, a facsimile of the cover, renders the scene so
graphically that nothing remains to be imagined. The massacre is observed from what
is literally, a bird’s eye view.
Downstairs, on the way out, you ask a Federal Park Service guard what became
of the Lazarus plaque. “Oh, it’s there all right,” he says. “It’s just not that obvious.”
Your retrace your steps and find it exactly where he told you it would be. No wonder
you missed it, it’s very small really, no larger than a cafeteria tray, mounted above eye
level and illuminated only by lightspill from the surrounding displays. Trading lines
with Gwen you recite the poem. Midway through, as you say “yearning to breathe
free,” you feel your throat clutch. With each word spoken aloud, the cadence and full
emotional charge of these lines – once so affirming of a hope long since nullified –
threatens to overwhelm you.
Gwen seems not to notice that you can hardly vocalize, continues on in a calm,
clear voice. When you’ve finished, she examines the adjacent cases full of scale models,
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 88
again, trying to imagine how you could have rendered it so gigantic in memory. In
your mind it seemed to take up a whole wall of the pedestal’s stone interior, writ so
large no one could fail to see it. Only now, as you write this do you realize how you
could have gotten the scale so wrong. Once long ago, you had a souvenir model of
Liberty – Lord knows what became of her – the poem stamped on her plastic base. In
the intervening years, you seamlessly expanded the lines of type into something
monumental. On the statuette, the poem had covered the entire wall. Once the genie’s
out of the bottle, no dose of reality can fit it back in.
Upstate to the Catskills for a weekend reading. Dinner at Patricia and Peter’s
house. In the gloaming, light spills lambent from the kitchen onto the lawn. Gwen
blows bubbles which land on the grass and somehow come to rest without popping – a
backyard prairie topped with iridescent spheres. “Look!” she cries, “Utopia for ants!”
cutting a swath through the crowd. Slip along in his jetstream. Top landing and almost
out into the street, fast fella gets stalled behind slow fella who, if there were roses
within nose range, would be stopping to smell them. Slow fella hits the open air, begins
whistling: Oh, what a beautiful morning! Fast fella strides into overdrive and swings
around, shooting sidelong daggers, then paum! slams into big gal coming the other way.
She’s solid too, poitrine like the prow of a man o’ war, Venus of Willendorf thighs.
“Excuse me,” fast fella says through gritted teeth, breath half knocked out of him. Big
gal plants herself, deliberate syllables. “You ought to watch where you’re going.”
A suited young woman clicks past, double-takes big gal in her stretch pants,
widens her eyes.
Fast fella, blatantly insincere. “Sorry.”
No good comes from this. You shift lanes and fall in behind slow fella who’s
moving so glacially you can still hear what’s going on back there.
Big gal: “Sorry, shit – I’ll bust your head.”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 89
Fast fella: “Oh yeah? What are you gonna do, sit on me?”
He’ll pay for that. You can almost feel big gal going for his tie knot with one
hand, drawing back the other arm, palm open wide. Street warrior asana. But you’ll
never know the next of it, for the wormhole’s already closed behind you. Parallel
universes on the same block. All you have is where you are and what’s up ahead: slow
fella warbling Some Enchanted Evening. Eight o’ five, a.m. You resist the temptation to
rush past him. Slacken your pace, deepen your breathing. By the time you reach the
awning of Paul’s building near the corner of Ninth Avenue, he’s made it through most
of Impossible Dream.
A middle-aged man, tall and thin, wearing globally anonymous sportswear leans
back against the doors. He coughs repeatedly, eventually bringing up a substantial
wad of sputum which he plants directly on the floor between his feet. Using the sole of
one white Pony running shoe he spreads the phlegm with slow circular motions. A few
moments later he draws a handkerchief out of his back pocket and with great
fastidiousness, blows his nose.
So camouflaged by the gray macadam, you nearly tread on it in the crosswalk.
Flattened to an almost two dimensional oval, yet still hirsute and endowed with its
unmistakable worm-like tail. There it is: the proverbial rat’s ass no one gives a rap
• • •
5 p.m. Gwen’s busy with homework. You’re burned out with writing. Already
it’s pitch dark. You reach across your desk for the first book that meets your grasp. The
Burnt Pages. John Ash. Read from “Forgetting”:
but that’s how I like it:
there is no other way to go on.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 90
December 6 – Le G. – Midmorning
Symbols aplenty in the naked city, so who knows which ones truly signify? But
here’s a puzzlement, a glitch in the accustomed seasonal order. And though she hasn’t
asked about it, or perhaps even noticed, your own internal Gwen wonders: Daddy what
does it mean?
Immediately after Thanksgiving, Christmas tree sellers from up north, Alaska,
Canada and Vermont, descend on the city and set up their stands on the sidewalks near
particular intersections, such as the one at 22nd Street diagonally across Ninth Avenue
from Le Gamin. Year after year, the same folks work the same locations, park their
pickup trucks converted into campers and nail two by fours into racks to lean the trees
against. To draw attention, some inflate gaily colored Santas or Elves and affix them
with ropes or guy wires to the roofs of their trucks. At nightfall, illuminated from
within, these guardians of the crossroads gladden the heart, serve as beacons to armies
of chilled pedestrians trudging wearily home. That’s how it’s been.
Recently though, at least in your neighborhood, a malady has afflicted the whole
pantheon of blow-up folk deities: they appear to be suffering a collective deflationary
crisis. The first incident you observed took place on 24th Street and Eighth Avenue in
front of the Rite Aid drugstore, where a red and green elf, trimmed in yellow was
stricken with pneumatic failure and crumpled within seconds into a flaccid heap. Then
yesterday, at a larger stand visible from your seat at Table 4, a full-scale Santa
precipitously lost air pressure and sagged into the street, disrupting traffic. With near
heroic energy, one of the fir-purveyors clambered up onto the camper’s roof and
inserted a hose into Santa’s valve while a compatriot on the ground revved up the air
As Santa reinflated, the fellow on the truck positioned himself at his back,
squeezing and palpating to prevent air pockets from forming in his folds. Soon, Santa
began to reassume his accustomed shape, swaying amiably to and fro, and the man
responded by spreading his arms across the giant’s vast red torso. The taughter his skin
drew, the more animated Santa’s movements became, until he appeared to abandon
himself to the throes of some exquisite sensation, twisting and pulling evermore
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 91
post, containing, as best he could, the giant’s wilder gestures.
For a moment it seemed that Santa might tear himself free and soar heavenward,
but gradually his paroxysms subsided and at last he stood upright, trembling gently in
the breeze. Satisfied that Santa had calmed at last, the man who had revivified him
climbed down and returned to the more mundane give-and-take of street-level trade.
For a quarter hour perhaps, all seemed well. But then, some latent fissure must have
abruptly ruptured, for within seconds Santa lay supine, sprawled over the roof of the
camper, one arm flung over his head in a pose very like that of the voluptuous dreamer
of Fusili’s “Nightmare.”
Some twenty-four hours gone and Santa still lies where he fell, his slack material
secured to the roof with bungee cords. Countless mortals file past, most oblivious to
Santa’s calamity, alive only to the bower of firs arrayed on either side of them, and the
pungent fragrance of forest, come to the city for the short, happy season in which nature
ends its cycle, in order, one day, to bloom again.
Santa’s back up! Incarnate and glowing from within – Father Christmas lives!
A silly warm day pushes the mercury up the tube into the high forties. Fierce,
freak winds, gusting to 50 mph, send the tree sellers atop their trucks to deflate and
batten down their at-risk Santas and Elves. Then they tie the trees securely to their
The caprices of the wind are a great mystery. Along some streets it rips awnings
down, on other streets one hardly feels it. At certain intersections it causes pedestrians
to jackknife forward and walk more or less in place until it abates. When it comes at
you from the side, you must lean precipitously into it, somehow maintaining balance.
Occasionally, a strong tailwind will push a car stopping for the red into the crosswalk.
Yet just down the block, calm prevails. Overhead, in the visible patches of sky, the
clouds race past like a special effect designed to convey the passage of geologic time.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 92
atmosphere exchanging for another.
How do you know you live in today’s city and not in one of the many
Manhattans of the past? Because as you walk, you navigate a labyrinth of scaffolds.
For the past several years, they’ve been multiplying exponentially. But then, so many
circumstances warrant them: construction of new buildings, renovation of old
buildings. A plethora of conversions too: slum to condo, school to condo, commercial
and industrial to residential, industrial to office or gallery space. Not to mention new
windows, HVAC, brickface maintenance (tucking and pointing, sandblasting) terra
cotta restoration, all manner of facade and cornice work. In short, every form of
makeover possible in a real estate culture bent on looking hot at any price. And though
they signify a forward-looking purpose, scaffolds often serve to make desolate whole
sectors of pedestrian life. They block out light, turn sidewalks into improvised prison
yards, necessitate ramps and detours, truncate sightlines.
Scaffolding material itself consists of nothing more than simple steel components
bolted together – essentially a big kid’s Erector set. Made from standardized pieces,
they can be assembled or taken apart very rapidly. The uprights rest on blocks of wood
that compensate for variations in the street grade, and the tunnels formed are roofed
over with planking. If the building is a posh one, the scaffold might feature a cutaway
to accommodate the presence of a venerable tree.
The side facing the street is usually fronted with a wall of plywood four by eights
upon which advertisements get wheatpasted – sometimes literally overnight – in
defiance of the timelessly ineffectual injunction to POST NO BILLS. Unless, of course,
the scaffold surrounds corporate emblem on the rise. In that case security guards will
preserve the scaffold as a marquee for the developer’s message. Testifying to the
greatness of the coming edifice, the rhetoric will, most likely, include that most savagely
abused of words: luxury. Almost as invariably, the scaffold’s sidekick, the dumpster,
stands waiting, Sancho Panza-like at the curb. Or if the project’s a large one, a herd of
dumpsters in varying degree.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 93
Thus scaffolds blossom in as many variations as there are worksites. Some
extend the whole length or width of a block, in deference to a large-scale project. On
other streets it seems that every second townhouse or tenement is undergoing
renovation, so one passes through a kind of Manichean universe of light and dark
spaces, alternatively bright and gloomy, enclosed and exposed.
And when it’s raining, what to do? There’s not sufficient room for two people to
pass one another without tilting their umbrellas to the side or collapsing them. If, like
the person approaching, you proceed under the assumption that you possess exclusive
air rights to the tunnel, the chances are you’ll bump bumbershoots and go on your way
convinced of the rudeness of the other. But because the roofs of the scaffolds leak like
sieves in any sort of downpour, it isn’t wise to dispense with your umbrella altogether,
but rather lower it to half staff for at least partial coverage.
Occasionally a scaffold will appear to have simply been abandoned. When
Gwen started pre-K, and for several years thereafter, the front of the school lay swathed
in a matrix of bars and hoardings. If any work was being done, you neither saw nor
heard it. Waiting with Eric B. at schoolday’s end for Gwen and Becky to emerge, you
shared a running joke: if only you’d had the good sense to go into the scaffolding
business – a day to put it up and then, like clockwork, every day afterward – ka-ching!
One morning in second grade, a visual shock: the scaffold had vanished and the
quotidian experience of dropping Gwen off and picking her up changed subtly. An
ambivalence. With its mediating structure erased, the school seemed oddly naked.
That’s always the way it is when a familiar scaffold is removed. Viscerally, you miss it
for a few days, but the dubious shelter it afforded is more than compensated for by the
restitution of a bit of sky. The dimly remembered building reveals itself – beautified, or
at any rate gussied up. Storefront businesses emerge from the glum twilight, their
signage no longer obscured. Nor does it take long for your mind to unbuild the
structures you can no longer see.
• • •
At the café, you scan the Times, rustle impatiently through their dreadful, slavish
coverage of Bush’s coup d’état. Juxtaposed with the ugly news, a full page ad of
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 94
surrounded by its own tiny, meticulously rendered scaffold. What’s the pitch? Joint
Reconstruction at the Hospital For Special Surgery.
pickup crew, none of whom wear hard hats and only a few of them the cheapest six-for-
a-dollar dust masks. This site features a kind of improvised chute you never noticed
before, shaped like a cubist’s idea of an elephant’s trunk and consisting of multiple
jumbo plastic garbage bins, their bottoms cut out, telescoped into one another and
strung together by chains through their handles. Suspended from whichever floor is
being cleared, it acts as a one-way amusement park ride for debris. Billows of dust
escape from the joints between bins as the refuse travels downward and a fair cloud
roils up when the payload hits home. If you pause beneath the scaffold when the
chute’s in action, you can hear a literal musique concrète: distant rumble high above, a
galloping crescendo of plaster and lathing, then bada-boom! followed by a coda of
soundwaves bouncing round the dumpster’s walls.
Subway car’s packed. You and another fellow lean against adjoining doors.
He’s squat, ethnically indeterminate, legs spread, feet splayed. He munches
voraciously, hand into mouth, into box, into mouth again. Welling up, the stench of
falsely buttered popcorn.
Better breathe through your mouth or else you’ll gag. Shift focus too. Down the
end of the car, a slight man, Asian, in a loose white shirt. He doesn’t plant his body
against the door to steady himself like a veteran New Yorker, but grasps the curved bar
at the edge of the seat row and sways with every shift of the train. He looks about with
what seems a mix of wonder and trepidation, as though he was, quite literally, born
yesterday, fully grown.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 95
Minus twenty today if you count the wind chill factor – metallic sky, but too cold
to snow. Through the window of one of Dr. Johnson’s treatment rooms – this one
painted bilious yellow – you gaze out at the fast-darkening sky, at the cornices of the
opposite buildings, then at the bundled-up folks hurrying along St. Nicholas Avenue,
and to and fro across 125th. Second visit to your new dentist. First the grim evaluation.
Now cleaning is in order.
Busses lumber past, ads running horizontally along their flanks: giant women
three times life size, magical creatures at once angular and buxom. In languid
odalisques they repose, wearing nothing but their H&M undies. You begin to nod
asleep in the timewarp, your mind swooping eagle-like over the landscape of their
Bobbi enters and begins fishing bits of hardware out of the autoclave and
snapping them together. You exchange pleasantries. Deliberately you don’t check your
watch. It could be ten minutes, or an hour since she called you from the waiting room.
Dr. Johnson bounds in, preceded by the double snap of his latex gloves. He pulls down
his plastic wraparound magnifying lenses, shoots you full of Novocain, then goes to
work with an ultrasonic machine that feels for all the world like a jackhammer. You’re
certain he’s destroyed your teeth, pulverized them in some dental analog to an urban
renewal clearance, but when he’s finished and you run your tongue around, the enamel
surfaces feel smooth, almost new.
shatter on contact. Avoiding faces, you raise your eyes to the stream of advertisements
above the windows and doors – “car cards” in transit ad parlance. Nestled amidst Dr.
Zizmore’s rainbow hallucinations of flawless skin, and Trollman and Glazer’s promise
to be “buen abogados y buen amigos,” an MTA public service message begs the million
dollar question: WHAT IF YOU ARE THE SICK PASSENGER? Not a sick passenger,
clear enough. Is it possible that Michel Foucault never died but went underground, into
MTA public relations?
IF YOU ARE NOT WELL, YOU WILL NOT BE LEFT ALONE.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 96
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