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- January 10 – Chelsea, Flatiron District Streets – Midafternoon
- January 11 – Dr. Johnson’s Office
- January 12 – 23rd Street Sixth Avenue – Late Afternoon
- January 17 – Le G. – Early Morning
- January 18 – Dr. Johnson’s Office – Midafternoon
- January 19 – New York Public Library Main Branch – Midday
- January 20 – Early Morning
- January 26 – Early Morning
Turn of the year and the beginning of the oh-oh’s. Nine of them in a row,
The view out your livingroom window takes in the whole of lower Manhattan,
but today the great towers downtown lie invisible behind low rolling clouds cover.
Classic winter lighting, everything’s turned some species of gray, and the smoke
gusting up from chimneys blows uniformly toward the southeast. It could be an
Aschcan-school painting but for the movement, or the establishing shot of a ‘30s movie
with a Gershwinesque score. Yet down there, it’s all working on overdrive. To the
south, four construction cranes ply the skyline. Look east and there are one, no two,
others at work. Six visible map pins in the real estate hot spots. And to the north and
west there must be dozens more.
The phone rings. Tobias calling from Madras, right on time. “Hang on a
second,” he says, “I’m going to put you on hold while I try to conference us with
There’s a click and for an instant you think you’ve lost him. But then a familiar
melody, merry yet plaintive, comes over the line. Sounds a bit like an electronic toy or
greeting card put on an endless loop. You are new at this global teleconferencing game
and so caught up willing it to work, that you hum along for a few moments before
recognizing it’s a small world after all.
A near epidemic of whitefellas, mostly business-suited, who puff cigars as they
amble, generating great clouds that hang blue and dense, and, even when no longer
visible, persist longer in the nostrils than blasts of automobile exhaust or the pang of
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 97
over all they survey – you sense that absent their oral exertions, these fellows would,
like Santa and his elves, unceremoniously deflate, leaving piles of gray material, cast-off
elephant hides to the mercy of the indifferent street.
Just there, across Sixth Avenue, Today’s Man, the vast store that caters to their
sartorial needs. Tomorrow, who knows? You suddenly get a sense that this few square
miles of Manhattan Valley culture constitute the park preserve of a race on the
borderline of survival. Who knows what fate will await them in the wild world to
January 11 – Dr. Johnson’s Office
For every minute of engaged dentistry at Dr. Johnson’s, you’ve spent many more
devoted to waiting. Abstractly there’s nothing wrong with that. Where else do you
have a chance to simply sit and think? Something too about the atmosphere of this
place – its pastel-colored walls and acoustic ceiling tiles, piebald with age – particularly
on a prematurely dark midwinter afternoon, that’s most conducive to letting your mind
drift. Which you do, until it bumps against your reason for being here: the
infrastructural issues one ignores at one’s peril. Same for a city as an individual. Take
for example, the Manhattan bridge. One either invests millions in renovating it, or
closes it down and dismantles it. Leaving the steelwork to crumble into the East River
simply isn’t an option.
And the new water tunnel, what about that? The two extant tunnels are a
century old. No one know their true condition. To really evaluate them would mean
shutting off the water, but their immense valves have grown so sclerotic it would be
folly to try closing them without an alternative source of supply in place.
You hear approaching footsteps down the hall. Not Dr. Johnson. At least not on
his way in here. Whomever it was just walked past. Probably Bobbi. Look out the
window – downtown and east. If this office were a few stories higher, you could see
over the roofs to the treetops of Central Park where, a couple of hundred feet down, an
enormous feat of engineering proceeds even as you sit here. Beneath the threshold of
visibility – unimagined by the majority of the city’s inhabitants – the incredible din,
dust and mud of excavation. That’s where the third tunnel’s come to now – all the way
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 98
one sandhog killed for every mile dug.
A generation ago, New York City was a democracy at the level of water.
Harlemite and Upper East-sider alike could turn on their taps and out would pour
some of purest, best-tasting water in the world, gathered into reservoirs from the
snowmelt of ten thousand creeks and springs. And the beauty of the system was that
the water flowed all the way from the Catskills via a gravity-fed system that didn’t need
a single moving part. Not so long ago, it could be fairly said that between its deep draft
harbor, temperate climate and fresh, delicious water, this city was not just a confluence
of world culture, but a site favored by nature too.
Over the years a massive wave of upstate suburbanization crested, and
compromised the watersheds. All sorts of nasty runoff byproducts started showing up
in unacceptable quantities. Now deals are afoot to protect key areas from further
upbuilding and runoff. What it amounts to is the city shelling out megabucks to stop
the big property owners from paving all of paradise. But if you listen closely, you can
hear the upstate developers and their political cronies laughing till they piss. For the us
it’s a different story. If the water supply becomes further tainted, the feds will force the
city to construct a purification plant, at an estimated cost of a billion dollars – read two
billion in the real world. In the meantime, every savvy, microbe-conscious household’s
got a Brita pitcher in the fridge, or a filter on the faucet. And the signature public act,
across all ethnic and class lines, is swigging Poland Spring, or some other brand-name
And then there are your teeth. For years any thought of reinvestment in them
lay beyond imagining, so you simply pretended, to the degree that you could, that your
choppers weren’t there. Then Aunt Elva’s beneficence made it possible for you to join a
health insurance plan, one that gives modest discounts on most procedures. Your first
choice in dentists was always Dr. Cooper. Consummately skilled, light of touch, and a
good soul into the bargain, he does not, alas, accept your insurance. He did, however,
offer to look over a list of “in plan” dentists to see if he recognized anyone he could
“Ah,” he said, midway down the page. “I knew a J.J. Johnson in dental school.
He was OK. If he’s the same one, give him a try.” Indeed J.J. Johnson turned out to be
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 99
big job that he took on with reassuring self-confidence.
So where is he now? In the porcelain basin to your left, near the plastic rinsing
cup, the water eddies hypnotically. Good thing you’re a master daydreamer.
• • •
What, have epochs flown by while you dozed? No, ten, twelve minutes only.
On the map in your dream, Dr. Johnson’s office was nowhere to be found. That’s
possible in the waking world as well. Not every Manhattan map represents the whole
of the island. Some relegate the northern reaches to the back side. Others simply stop
at 110th or 125th Streets, shearing off the top two fifths. True, Manhattan’s attenuation
makes it a difficult shape to fit within a single frame. But there’s something too in
where the cut gets made that speaks to the mapmaker’s sense of social geography – the
lopped-off neighborhoods being those most distant from the central business districts
and official nodes of culture. To say nothing, and everything, of the timeworn axiom
that a mostly African-American or Latino population coincides with the thinning out of
real estate value.
But market and demographic forces are nothing if not mechanisms for tilting the
table to unaccustomed angles. And with that comes remapping, both literal and in the
mind. Nowadays an influx of strategic investment has turned broad swaths of 125th
Street frontage into a disconcerting emulation of Queens Boulevard. Spreading east of
St. Nicholas, a host of national chains have erupted, including an immense Old Navy
superstore and Tower Records. On the corner just across from Dr. Johnson, the Popeyes
fried chicken restaurant never lacks for customers. Odd how you never noticed before
that the faulty wordspacing in the logo would read “Pope yes” to someone who didn’t
already know the name.
Just one block north, it’s a different story. The street’s still lined with tenements,
some vacant lots and a handful of storefront churches. But how long will that last?
And market forces, albeit of another sort, drew you here as well, five miles uptown
from your daily spot at Table 4. Eight miles as the crow flies from the WTC.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 100
On a good day, you can cover the distance between Chelsea and Harlem in
twenty minutes. You climb aboard a C or E rain at 23rd Street, then change at 42nd
Street for the A. The A touches down at 59th Street, then rockets north non-stop to
125th Street. There’s a funny bit in an old John Sayles movie, The Brother from Another
Planet, where the Brother, a Candide-like visitor from outer space, wanders onto a rush-
hour A Train uptown. As the subway pulls into Columbus Circle, a street-wise fellow
catches the Brother’s eye. “Watch,” says the trickster, pretending it’s his own sleight of
hand, “Watch me make the white people disappear.”
Today though, not all the white people vanish. Increasingly they live and buy
property north of 125th Street, borne on the tidal shifts of gentrification that are also
pushing laterally east to Williamsburg and across the Hudson to Jersey City. And
Hoboken! Used to be working class Italian-Irish – decent housing stock too –
Dr. Johnson fairly leaps into the room – brisk, bantering and deeply intent on
producing a set of impressions, top and bottom, on which he’ll base the shape of crowns
to come. “Hey Bobbi,” he shouts, “turn up that radio.” Dutifully, Bobbi cranks the
Rush Limbaugh. Dr. Johnson slathers a hideous looking U-shaped mesh trough full of
pink something or other. You don’t want to know. “Open,” he says, “wide.” Rush’s
giggle overwhelms you. He’s having more fun than a fella has a right to. “Got to know
what the enemy’s up to,” crows Dr. Johnson. “Now bite down good. That’s the way!”
At the close of the construction, the hour of worship. Twin cranes genuflect
before a tower they spent the day a-raising. In the morning they’ll extend to full height
again and all around the air will fill with the cries of the faithful: All power to the sky-
January 17 – Le G. – Early Morning
You begin two story fragments that go nowhere. The first:
“Ah, life in Medieval New York.”
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 101
“What? There was no medieval New York!”
• • •
Midmorning walk up Park Avenue from Hunter to Anna R.’s. At 73rd, a van
parked by a posh apartment building:
Windows, Shades, Blinds
A block or so later, you pass a woman walking south. Very pregnant, coat open
to the chill winds, she leans her whole body sideways into her cell phone like the Tower
of Pisa. “OK. OK!” Loud and breathless.
Heading east on 76th Street, another woman, in heels and a hurry, waits for the
light to change. She spots a gap in the traffic and trots across the downtown lanes to the
divider. An enormous yellow tote bag swings from her shoulder. Imprinted in red
letters: Valtrex. Isn’t that a herpes medication? Business-suited, she could easily be in
pharmaceutical sales. But in New York you never know. Might be an identity
• • •
Walk across the park to the Cass Gilbert exhibition at the New York Historical
Society. Three photos from 1911 of buildings on Broadway between Barclay Street and
Park Place just prior to demolitions for the Woolworth Building. One store proclaims in
huge letters “The Hub: Great Clothiers.” Above the sign hang banners: “Building
Coming Down – Forced to Vacate…Suits and Overcoats Selling at Less than 1/2 Cost.”
It still astonishes you that Gilbert designed what you think of as the city’s two
most powerful buildings: the Woolworth tower and the vast ultra-austere caverns of
the U.S. Army Terminal on the Brooklyn waterfront. How could the same mind have
wrapped itself around two such disparate forms? On the other hand, while they seem
polar opposites on one level, both represent the extension of existing building types to a
hitherto unprecedented scale. Both are made beautiful via an unerring rigor of
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 102
columns in the atrium for example, look like Ellsworth Kelly sculptures, avant la lettre.
A revelation to see the originals of drawings you’ve only seen reproduced,
among them, an astonishing Hugh Ferriss elevation of the Army Terminal from around
1918 – the perspectives subtly distorted, the play of light and shadow bringing out all
the building’s elegant menace. The structure it describes seems both material and
chimerical, utilitarian and phantasmagoric, endowed with the qualities of living myth –
an intelligent giant in repose, one does not wish to rouse it. Gilbert commented that
“Ornament of any kind would seem trivial in so great and impressive a mass.” Yet one
of Ferriss’s drawings shows gigantic decorative pier ends, which were never built.
Just outside the exhibition area you find yourself staring straight at an immense
painting in the permanent collection: Thomas Cole’s “Consummation of Empire,”
dated 1836. Seen one after the other like this, the link between works and minds
separated by four score years suddenly becomes clear. All Ferriss really added to
Cole’s vision of American supremacy are technical updates like the swarms of bi-planes
soaring high over New York harbor. But he also distilled down to monochrome the
saturated, almost orgiastic chromas of Coles’s manifest destiny. By the Great War’s
end, the heroic industrial machine demanded its portraiture in unremitting black and
January 18 – Dr. Johnson’s Office – Midafternoon
Chief among the charms of this place is that Dr. J. hasn’t knuckled under to post-
modernity. Taking pride of place in the waiting room, a huge, empty fishtank, its tin
top askew, glass sides streaked with a violently green, organic-looking substance –
desiccated since who knows when. The paneling is of the sort you associate with your
uncle’s old suburban “den” and the Rutland, VT unemployment office – a material that
tries only half-heartedly to convince you it’s wood. Judging by its time-worn patina,
the naugahyde covering on the chairs, and the condition of the carpeting, the room
appears to have had its last facelift no later than the early ‘70s.
The artwork is of more recent vintage though: three framed black and white
prints, roughly sixteen by twenty, signed by Michael González in 1993. Today is the
first time you actually take a close look at one and immediately it provokes a laugh.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 103
fellow folded into a chair by the window. But he’s walled in behind his magazine, so
you let the impulse pass and turn back to the images, examine them in turn. Each is a
meticulously-detailed cartoon, a variation on the theme of dentistry as infrastructure in
which Lilliputian hard hats labor heroically to restore a set of dilapidated
Brobdignagian teeth. Cranes load steel onto a flat truck for “bridgework,” a drilling
rig’s erected to perform a root canal, a cement mixer pours filling into a cavity. Here
and there, slapstick set-pieces, almost Boschian in detail. Atop a high ladder, a
workman paints a signboard: “This Jobsite has Worked 30 Days Without an Accident,”
even as diesel exhaust from a dumptruck below sets fire to the seat of his pants.
“Mr. Darton.” Bobbi summons from the hallway. Reluctantly you follow her,
exchange the big-little world for a treatment room, pink this time. She clips on your
bib. A good sort, Bobbi is. Married to a fellow who recently found a high-paying job in
Las Vegas. He’s moved out ahead of her, but she plans to join him soon, taking their
two little ones to a new life out west. She adjusts the lamp so it doesn’t shine directly in
your eyes. Still its warmth radiates down sun-like and you drift into a trance. Outside
the window, Pope yes does a land office business in fried chicken and biscuits.
Articulated busses, their flanks plastered with ads for sportswear and dotcom hoohah
glide by. You look for the H&M models, but they must have wised up, headed south.
Don’t see many yellow cabs out there. A lot of them won’t go north of 96th Street, so
upper Manhattan relies on car services.
You can’t hear his voice or characteristic springy walk along the hallway, yet
you’re pretty sure Dr. Johnson is out there somewhere in his vast labyrinth of rooms,
perhaps in some inner sanctum. Anyone’s guess when he might pop through the door,
snap on his latex gloves and get to work on you. It dimly passes through your mind
that in some measure you have become, however briefly, his Boswell.
A great silence pervades the office. No Rush Limbaugh, no oldies on the radio.
Has everyone gone home? That question must be a common one for all his patients,
which is probably why a dozen or so magazines lie spread across the window sill. All
rooms here are about waiting. An image jumps at you off a Newsweek cover, the face of
a young black man, his top right incisor sheathed in delicately filigreed gold. Bold
headline: “America’s Prison Generation.” Then smaller below: “Readell Johnson, One
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 104
Behind Bars.” Dated November 14, last year. You start to read. Dr. Johnson enters,
triumphant. Between thumb and forefinger, he holds your crown, a frightening molar-
shaped nugget of stainless steel. “Your choice,” he’d said when you ordered it. For
fifty bucks extra it could have been enameled to match your other teeth perfectly. But
who’s to see it way back there?
Wander among the displays in the “Utopias” exhibit and relish a rare moment of
not feeling completely on the outside. A voice inside your head even affirms “you’re
part of this” – though you’ve no idea what will come out of your mouth when you give
your rap on Utopian New York eight days hence. Here’s a case worth a closer look:
photos and documents of the ’39 World’s Fair’s emblem-structures, the Trylon and
“Gleaming in the sun, the theme center…stands as a striking symbol of man’s
aspiration to attain a ‘happier way of living in the world of tomorrow.’” While inside
the Perisphere: “spectators at a rate of 8,000 per hour look down from two moving
platforms…on a vivid drama of twenty-four hours in the life of Democracity” –
Democracity being the fair designers’ ideal metropolis of the future. Ah, the innocent
hype of yesteryear, crafted by an anonymous copywriter and typed on NYWF
Department of Publicity stationery. Who would even dream of such a formulation
today, much less propose a utopian city as a desirable, achievable goal?
There’s a funny nugget of World’s Fair lore buried amidst all the ramped-up
symbology: a headbutting contest between Robert Moses, the Fair’s master planner,
and Mayor La Guardia. Ever the pragmatist, Moses contracted the steelwork for the
Trylon and Perisphere out to the lowest bidder, which happened to be Krupp. When La
Guardia heard about the deal, he put his foot down, insisted that the city buy only
American steel. Moses was forced to back out. When the Fair closed in 1940, the Trylon
and Perisphere were torn down and their four thousand tons of steel sent as scrap to
munitions plants. More ironies than one can shake a stick at. Including that of the
irony of the anti-Nazi La Guardia unwittingly saving German cities, if not from injury,
then from the insult of being leveled with recycled Kruppstahl.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 105
January 20 – Early Morning
Weird optical illusion downtown. In this strange lighting, as waves of fog blow
by it, the roof of the Merrill Lynch tower, tallest in the World Financial Center cluster,
appears as the top of an immense box flapping to and fro.
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