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- January 27 – World Trade Center – Early Morning
- January 28 – La Guardia to Burlington, VT – Early morning
- February 5 – Burlington to Newark, NJ – Early afternoon
- February 6 – Le G. – Early Morning
- February 12 – Le G. – Midmorning
- February 19 – Le G. – Early Morning
- February 20 – Le G. – Early Morning
- March 9 – Metropolitan Museum – Evening
- March 23
Meandering toward you down Eighth Avenue, just south of Penn Station, three
derelicts of the old school engage in an animated debate. As you close range, you notice
one’s a woman. Lean and sharp-featured, she shakes her head vehemently and gives a
dismissive wave of her hand. “Naw, it’s the cardinals – the cardinals vote for the friggin’
January 27 – World Trade Center – Early Morning
Friendly guy, the head of security. He’s waiting for you at the check-in desk and
together you swoop up in that leave-your-stomach-behind elevator you never thought
you would ride again. The taping’s for a series called Modern Marvels, which is
broadcast on the History Channel. You saw one of their shows, the building of Hoover
Dam. A decent enough documentary for what it was, and in any case, Divided…’s still
technically in print and you want keep it that way if you can.
Don’t remember exactly when, but you’ve done this routine before. A dusting of
powder to de-shine your nose. Clip-on mic, check sound levels. The producer seems a
nice gal – sense of humor, engaged and earnest too, knows her WTC. She’s read Divided
not to flatter you, but as part of her research. A couple of hours fly by. She seems
happy with the result. It’ll air in October, but she promises to send you a copy soon as
it’s edited. Who knows what bites will make the final cut?
Elevator down. Weird how these images get produced. There you were, in an
office way up inside tower one. But the filmmakers shot you against a big color photo
of the trade center taken from New Jersey. Before you left, they played back a bit of
your talking head with the WTC in the background. If you didn’t know better, you’d
believe what you saw.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 106
Midafternoon. Up to the library to give your spiel. Your notion was to have fun
with this piece, present Utopian New York as a series of ephemeral moments, imagined
and experienced. So you began with the appearance of Henry Hudson’s Halve Maen,
the ship later described by a native who watched it draw near as “a house of various
colors…crowded with living creatures.”
to China. After a ferocious transatlantic voyage and rough northern
encounters, he arrived at Sandy Hook where his navigator, Robert Juet
recorded the scene:
“This is a very good land to fall with, and a pleasant land to see…”
Off the south coast of Staten Island, Juet reported sighting “many salmons,
mullets and rayes, very great.” On Coney Island, they caught ten mullet “of
a foote and a halfe long apeece and a ray as great as four men could haule
into the ship…” Crossing into Bergen Neck from Staten Island were
“lands…pleasant with grasse and flowers and goodly trees as ever they had
seene, and very sweet smells came from them.”
elevator, toward your strongest links between New York and Utopia – those that came
through your grandfather Meyer:
Automats, all of which have since blended into one. What I do remember
clearly is that these were the moments when my grandfather seemed most
He also frequented the Garden Cafeteria on Essex Street – a place put
on the literary map by Isaac Bashevis Singer in his story “The Kabbalist of
East Broadway.” For Meyer, the Garden was a kind of utopia too. But of a
altogether different order. There he was a known quantity, had to play the
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 107
after the town where he was born. He spoke Yiddish with them – the mama-
loshen – with even more facility than his very fine English. But the
experience always demanded he revisit the old days in an old world,
encumbered with, at best, ambivalence.
Whereas, in the Automat, Meyer became a modern man. Who there
knew, or cared that his craft – a kind of semi-mechanized embroidery – had
evaporated even before the Depression, leaving him a skilled worker
without a trade? Here, pushing through the revolving doors, Meyer was on
a par with anyone. He would hand me a dollar bill and I’d walk to the high
marble change counter where George Washington instantly transmuted into
twenty buffaloes – and twenty buffaloes went a long way at the Automat.
Meyer’s essentials were coffee, either with a cheese danish, or a kaiser roll
with sweet butter.
Coffee was obtained by placing a cup under the brass spigot, which I
remember as having the shape of a dolphin, but perhaps I am embellishing.
Then you would insert the requisite nickels and push the button. Out
would gush a river of milky coffee that never failed to overflow the cup.
This is how I developed my taste for – well, addiction really – to coffee and
a deep affinity for the super-abundant. When I brought the cup back to our
table, Meyer would hand me the saucer so I could drink the runover.
The same nickels inserted into slots next to glass and metal rotating
cylinders liberated the pies, rolls and danishes, stacked vertically within.
Such was the wonderful union of mechanized Utopia with pie-from-the sky
Cockaigne. Beneath the vaulted ceiling, where sunlight through the big
plate glass windows intersected the soft incandescent glow of hanging
lamps, Meyer breathed the city air that makes one free. Not hemmed-in by
the transplanted shtetl of the Lower East Side, but sitting in an open space
among fellow cosmopolitans, amidst the timeless plenty, ever available, at
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 108
A heartening thing to have such a good-sized crowd in the room. Flattered that
Marshall Berman and Dr. Falencki, came out to hear you. Even Garvin Wong your
much-revered, now-retired, pre-Cooper dentist turned out. Plus lots of folks you didn’t
know. So what was billed as a Q&A turned into an exchange of utopian associations,
for more than an hour, among friends and strangers alike – a bit of Utopia in its own
Off to Goddard. New teaching job. First residency. Eight days. Heartsick at the
though of being away so long. Best get into the visuals – distract your eye. Flash of
silver brightness. On an oblique path, another plane crosses above. Twin vapor trails
hang, like a tuning fork’s vibrations.
Below, frozen lakes – ponds really. One’s wolfish, a miniature Superior. A dam
across the neck of another makes it look, snow and all, like a huge blanched chili pepper
in a bed of forest green.
It’s a spinous fabric these chains of wooded hills. There’s one shaved in a
straight swath down the middle as though prepped for a surgeon. Some of these
mountains are very immodest. Those two look like stone bodies lying side by side,
curved into one another – asleep after who knows what exertions?
Doze and wake up banking steeply into Burlington. If all goes well, in a few
months, you’ll touch down in another longitude, and the airfield will be Charles de
Gaulle. And all because your daughter, at age nine and a half, invented the escrow
account. What, she asked, the day before you left, would become of your Goddard
earnings? You shrugged. Made a gesture of forking up food. Suppose, she said, we
don’t just use the money to live on, but keep it separate for a trip to Europe? How long
would it take to get enough? You exchanged glances with Katie, raised eyebrows, half
awestruck. If either of you had been possessed of that kind of acumen, at never mind
what age – well, it hardly bears thinking about now. But later that evening you did the
math and calculated that if you could live off your other gigs until the end of the
semester, you might swing it.
Truth is, you’ve been hyping Gwen on Paris like it’s the promised land for years.
And if, in fact, you get there, you’re convinced it will become her second city in a trice.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 109
parks – the Tuilleries with its fountains, Jardin du Luxembourg, the Bois du Boulogne
constitute a whole ‘nother kind of child’s wonderland. Beyond which, the city’s energy
feels sympathetic to hers, and she may find there some deeper affirmation of her own
grace and beauty than is readily available back home. It should only happen.
Hanging out of a late evening with Elena at Martin Manor. She wants to have a
smoke, so the two of you head out onto the porch. Brilliant cold. The field next to the
house looks so inviting though that you decide to take a walk and step off the porch
together. Instantly find yourselves thigh deep in snow. It’s a laughing matter. But you
stop when you hear the singing from the convocation gathering inside:
You don’t do this separated-from-Katie-and-Gwen thing well. Next residency
they’ll have to come up with you. Lots more to do outdoors in July. And then, on For
now, enormous pine trees, gorgeous in their overburden of ice. Perhaps there was a
partial melt, then more snow. Whatever causes it, from time to time comes the utterly
weird and anguished sound of a whole tall tree going down, somewhere out there.
Spookiest when you hear it after dark.
This go-round, the creative writing MFA and Masters in Psych. residencies
coincide in space and time, hence both programs alternate using the same meeting
rooms. Yesterday afternoon, on entering the Oak Room to teach, you found this notice
taped to the door:
Go?” has been cancelled. Where indeed? And now, will anyone ever know?
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 110
February 5 – Burlington to Newark, NJ – Early afternoon
Homeward. Last plane out in a wicked sleetstorm hammering the whole
Northeast. Headsup, the pilot’s on the PA. “Hey, and welcome aboard. Just want to
let you know that Maria, our lovely flight attendant back there is leaving Continental.
Yes folks, this is her last flight – after today she’s off to be a contestant on Survivor III.
Don’t ask where she’s going, she can’t tell us, but tune in and you’ll see…”
On the other side of the glass, whiteout. Sitting right over the wing and you
can’t see the props. Maria works her way down the aisle. The pilot’s right, she is
lovely. Olive skin, black eyebrows, wide bow of mouth. She hands you a packet of
salted nuts. What would you like to drink? As she leans in to serve your club soda, a
huge golden cross swings out from the chain round her neck, a diamond or rhinestone
flashing at each of its cardinal points. You raise your tumbler, wish her that most
precious commodity everyone needs: good luck.
Put the nuts in your coat pocket. What’s that in there? Ah, Gwen’s souvenir: a
pine cone you’d struggled mightily to achieve – the only one you found still hanging
from a branch. When you jumped high enough to touch it, your fingers wouldn’t quite
grip, and each time the bough unleashed an avalanche of icy snow full in your face.
And still the trophy hung, Aesop-like, just out of reach. At last, a nearly desperate leap,
and then the feel of it, solid in your palm. For a moment, you imagined being whipped
skyward by the snapback. But then, there you stood, both feet on the ground, and all
around a rain of crystals coming down.
A bump and the rush of air against the flaps lets you know you’ve landed.
Somehow this pilot, who sounded like such a goofball, managed to find Newark and
lay the plane down on a runway. Hallelujah. Home.
Unpredictable, this place. Sometimes nearly full at 8:30. But today, deserted
apart from you and Deborah.
An even earlier customer has left several sections of the Paper of Wretched
tented up on the banquette. Find the front page. Give it a skim. Amidst breathless
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 111
waste of Times.
Whatever else it may be, this city constitutes a never-ending exercise in triage –
that is simply accepted. It happened, move on. The plant’s leaves start to yellow,
whamo, out on the curbside it goes. The apartment costs too much, move out. An old
friend who had been a Ranger in Vietnam told you once that before a mission, his
buddies made a ritual of clasping hands and saying in unison: “Nobody dies.” We’re
not like that. We begin with the premise that not everyone makes it, someone’s bound
between 19th and 20st. Far back as you can remember, a PARK FAST with a huge
billboard and a Getty station shared that site. During the ‘80s you gassed up the VW
bus there scores of time, pumped free air into your bike’s tires going back into the ‘70s.
But this not-so-remote past already has the quality of a reverie whose significance never
weighed much and which with every instant evaporates, to the point where frankly,
you don’t care to grasp it more clearly – its easier to let it go.
Deborah puts the coffee down on your table and you take in the graphic on her
teeshirt: silhouette of a low-rise skyline dominated by the trade center. Above the
cityscape, a crescent moon hangs amidst an arc of glittery stars. Surmounting it all, in
Olde English type, Harlem, New York. Since the place is still quiet, she sits to talk – pulls
out some contact sheets, mostly of Morocco, a few photos taken here. She hands you a
loop and a grease pencil. “Mark the ones you like.”
Her eye’s all over the place, maybe lacks confidence, but when she sticks to black
and white portraits, and figures caught on the move – the shots are haunting and
resonant. Besides which, Deborah’s one of your favorite Gaministas. Born in
Casablanca, young adulthood in Paris, then launched herself at New York. High-
strung, earthy, moody, part Jewish, part Berber. Some mornings, her default expression
borders on aggrieved, but when she smiles, her face warms, flushes even, with
A man enters, closes the door behind him, glances around, unsure the place is
open. Deborah stands, gestures to the mostly empty room. “Sit anywhere.” Polite, but
fundamentally indifferent – French beyond French. The customer, looks relieved, heads
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 112
see what I do for a living?” She stifles a yawn, stretches expansively. Before your eyes,
the twin towers on her teeshirt bow apart like parentheses, the moon waxes over
“Harlem” on the rise. Goddam – what to do with your eyes? Quick, look out the
“I’ll come back when I take his order.”
The contact sheets still lie on your table.
“I’ll be here.”
• • •
Something of Shaharazade in the taking of these notes, though no one would
mistake you for her. Not nowadays. Perhaps in your teens and twenties, when your
female aspect lay closer to the skin. To the point where some folks getting into your
taxi by night saw only your long hair from behind and addressed you, sincerely, as
“miss.” And indeed, the picture on your hack license made you look like a butch,
slightly pissed-off Latina. On these pages too it’s mostly days that accumulate, not
nights. That is where middle age lands you.
Nor are you confabulating entertainments with the aim of staying the sword. Yet
you have a sense – unsupported by any sort of reasoning – that by recording these
moments you may somehow spin things out a bit longer. Or if not, simply mark the
moments in play and passing. Nothing to say, only to show.
Meyer had a wonderful comeback when someone trumpeted an opinion as
indisputable fact. Vas you dere, Charlie? – eyebrows raised, laying on the Yiddishkeit. In
this case you could answer, yes, you were. Been here all the time.
The apartment’s deserted when you return from the café. Long gray view
through the living room windows to the fog-swept mountains downtown. But pinned
to the wall above the buffet hangs the banner Katie and Gwen made while you were
away at Goddard. Gnarled boughs shaped into letterforms, sprouting green leaves, and
an occasional red one: WELCOME HOME!
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 113
Post’s newest column: “Dead Dot Com of the Day.” Rupert’s amanuenses,
never at a loss for the acid trope. Like Wilde, but heartless. Also reported, without
irony, the evacuation of the Federal Treasury Building in DC due to a noxious odor.
Deeper into the paper you bore in order to learn, in a context already forgotten,
that in southern Idaho, there’s a town called Malad City – a county seat no less.
Return home to an email from Bill G. He wants you to check out a website that
uses the 360° imaging technology he labors long and hard to market. Click the link and
you land in DizzyCity.com where, with another click, up rises up a list of panoramas –
three hundred and sixty degree views of dozens of urban crossroads. Ah, 23rd Street
and Eighth is on the list. Click-click, viola! The Gap, Carver Federal Savings & Loan,
Bassry’s stand, Häagen-Dazs, the ancient donut shop out of Hopper with the reader-
advisor upstairs. It’s all on display, completely familiar, utterly other. The city on the
verge of a nervous breakdown. Or is it you? Or the botha youze?
Cellphone warble, and the ensuing monologue at Table 12 cuts above the
ambient din: “Ritchie, hey Ritchie, come in. Ritchie did you get the dumpster permit?
No? Should have come in. Give me Pat. Hey, Pat! Did a dumpster permit come in
Friday? It should have come in Friday. GPS, yeah, GPS. When did it come in? Could
Angelo fax John from Steve’s office? – is Angelo there by any chance? Hi – yeah, Pat
has the dumpster permit – fax it over to him… These vertical joints… Ah, I believe it’s
bonded… Those clowns over there, they make me nervous….”
• • •
All the dailies cover Bill Clinton shopping for office space on one-two-five. Daily
News wins out the headline competition: “HOMEBOY.”
Museum. Odd juxtaposition of symbols, given that the Gehry design looks distinctly
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 114
towers were to precipitate itself over in that direction, might we expect offspring? What
would it, or they, look like? And how long a gestation period? If both towers try to go
for it at once, could be some serious competition between twins. Unless they agree to
take turns. Ah, commerce – always looking to get a piece of the arts.
Great moments in marketing right in your very corner. Can’t see the graphics,
but the smoothly-modulated voice from the speaker of the G3 iBook on the table just to
your left comes across loud and clear: Expressing the brand where it was not spoken
before… Connecting to product in meaningful ways… Music and sound bring life to
Life to experience – God you wish you’d written that. Whatever does it mean?
Scott’s a nice man, your age more or less, a regular here and business guru to a tribe of
bright-eyed young acolytes.
Tune out the market-spiel and take another run at the Times. Welfare “reform,”
it seems, has had a beneficent effect upon 129th Street, formerly “Harlem’s Ravaged
Heart.” Seems the editors have rolled off the panic for now, and amped-up the
“Those laws which require work in exchange for benefits before they are cut off
entirely, pushed many residents into the work force. Their landing has been cushioned
by an economy as supportive as a trampoline.”
Thus “revived” by the wondrous elixir of the work ethic, the heart in question
has now become just another “American Block” – or read another way, a safe
investment for white folk.
But there are juicy bits embedded within the language itself. Here, Ibo Balton,
director of planning for Manhattan’s housing department calls Harlem the spiritual
capital of the African Diaspora. Is he right? And if so, what does that mean to and for the
city, and beyond? What is the material basis of a spiritual capital? Are matter and
spirit extricable from one another in the life of a community?
And Big Stan, who grew up on 129th before its domestication, still raps out
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 115
Accept the fact that now I’m a grown man standing on my own two
Used to hate guns but now I own two
Twin Glocks for cops
Use? I promise to
I ain’t going out like Amadou.
Probably won’t top the playlist over the PA at Harlem’s flagship Starbucks.
• • •
And thick and fast they came at last, and more and more and more. The latest
bid for the WTC: $3.25 billion. Vornado! There’s a player for you – a real estate empire
founded on blowing hot air from one end of a room to another.
Strike’s over at Domino sugar. A long one, over a year and a half. Big loss for
the workers. Sad and sorry too, because not one other union or local came out to back
them up. Most likely Tate & Lyle will pull the plug on the plant anyway within a year
or two, and the last big Brooklyn manufacturer will be gone. So out of balance with
itself and the world, this city is getting too painful for you to write in, or about. Basta.
Strange, exquisite little painting of smoldering ruins in twilit snow: Egbert van
der Poel’s “A View of Delft After the Explosion of 1654.” The card on the wall explains
that the city powder magazine blew up accidentally, killed dozens and knocked scores
of buildings flat. Tourists came from far and wide to witness the destruction. To meet
the demand for souvenirs, local artists churned out views by the hundreds.
Not every day that the Post and News offer up the same headline, but given
yesterday’s staggering market, this one’s a no-brainer: MAD DOW DISEASE.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 116
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