Saturday, November 20, 2010

Again The Sun

A Place In The Sun, a novel by Lewis Warsh.
Spuyten Duyvil, 2010.

“Passion,” observed Joss Whedon, creator of the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “it lies in all of us, sleeping... waiting... and though unwanted... unbidden... it will stir... open its jaws and howl. It speaks to us... guides us... passion rules us all, and we obey. What other choice do we have? Passion is the source of our finest moments. The joy of love... the clarity of hatred... and the ecstasy of grief. It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion maybe we'd know some kind of peace... but we would be hollow... Empty rooms shuttered and dank. Without passion we'd be truly dead.”

Whedon is right. What would life be without that inner chafing, those infernal storms, those nagging incitements, that relentless driving hunger for a moment of sharp, stabbing, mongrel gratification?

Hollow. Dismal as an urn in a mausoleum. Mouldy as a chunk of brie. Hollow as the hull of a tanker askew in the dust of the Aral Sea.

Desire, as we all come to discover the instant we come into this world, can be cruel, dictatorial, and insatiable. It is the engine of all our literature. It is the driving force of all our art. It is what feelingly persuades us that we are alive.

A Place In The Sun is a collection of short stories and novelettes united by the theme of misaligned desire. Cinephiles will recognize this title as the title of the 1951 film starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, in which a young man (Montgomery Clift) becomes romantically involved with two women, a poor factory worker (Shelley Winters) and a spirited, devil-may-care socialite (Elizabeth Taylor).

“A Place In The Sun,” the centerpiece of Warsh’s collection, is a voyeuristic look at the life of Montgomery Clift and his intense association with Elizabeth Taylor, who worshiped him.

Clift, a major heartthrob of the 50s, was gay. This was rigorously kept from the public, and even many of the film stars of that era were unaware of it. In many ways it was like a cruel joke fate had played on the men and women who were touched by Clift’s handsomeness and vulnerability.

“Everyone wanted to sleep with Monty,” Warsh writes, “He loved being around women but he rarely went to bed with them. ‘We settled for friendship,’ one of his earliest girlfriends confessed. Women would fall in love with him, as Elizabeth did on the set of A Place In The Sun, refusing to believe that he wasn’t interested in sleeping with women. Most of the women he met were ignorant of the possibility of men loving men or women loving women, Most of the actors and actresses whom Monty met were in love with themselves.”

The story that unfolds around Clift’s life is that of a man always standing wobbily at the edge of a cliff. Holding a bottle of whiskey. Taunting the fates. Flirting with the void. Wanting desperately to fill himself with something ineffable. Something -- anything -- that wasn’t him.

Warsh’s portrait encapsulates a tragedy of lurid details and tragic dimensions. We see Clift sitting on the wooden stoops of the Lake Tahoe hotel where he and Elizabeth Taylor were filming A Place In The Sun, passing her a bottle of Jim Beam and trying to keep their conversation focused on the movie, on acting, on Theodore Dreiser, while Elizabeth, taking a swig every now and then and wiping her mouth off with the back of her hand, silently puzzles over why this intense and vulnerable man wasn’t making any moves toward a more romantic involvement.

Is this true? I have not read biographies of either film star. True or not, it makes for a very intriguing intertwining of two lives living in a world of high glamour and yet feeling constantly tortured by essences they cannot grasp, rare wines whose fragrances tantalize but can never be sipped.

Much of Taylor’s personal life and tragedies plays out in Warsh’s tale as well. Her marriages to Michael Wilding, Eddie Fisher, Mike Todd and Richard Burton. Her love of jewelry. Her need for more and more money. “It’s hard,” Warsh writes, “to live in this world and not feel an insatiable craving for objects and money (for all the objects money can buy).” “It’s also hard,” he elaborates, “to feel free of the need to be around other people, easy to become addicted to their need for you, to become dependent on their need.”

Warsh’s observation nicely articulates my imagining of that world, the Hollywood world, the life of glamour and money, drugs and sex and romantic intrigues. We are among people with the means to fulfill almost any desire, but the undercurrent of frustration plaguing every attempt at fulfillment adds a seasoning of irony to this culture. The empowerment of wealth and fame exacerbate desire. They do not relieve it. It would almost seem that by the ability to have everything, these people have nothing. Lives are lost in a wilderness of infinite possibilities that never bring them what they really want, which is a rest from wanting.

Warsh’s collection begins on a note of extreme violence. Rape, murder, guns. A demented intruder. Police in the street with bullhorns. The story is called “The Russians,“ and reads a great deal like a movie. The events are explosive, the characters “prone to extreme solutions.” The first sentence is a duzie: “The two Russian women were in the kitchen of their apartment when Eddie Perez came in through the window with a gun.”

The next story in the collection, “Secret,” segues into a quieter realm, the realm of the secret, the realm of the confession. A writer with the ability to listen and put people at ease and allow them an opportunity to reveal their secrets, particularly ones involving sex. The narrator hears a woman confess an affair she had with her dentist. “She was the last patient of the day and he locked the door of his office behind him. There was a couch in a room behind his office, away from the bright lights and the X-ray machines and the plastic gloves. She had the feeling that she wasn’t the first patient he had seduced. ‘I leaned over the arm of the couch and he lifted my skirt,’ she said.”

“Sometimes,” the narrator continues, “people tell you more than you want to know. I had simply asked if she could recommend a dentist and this is what she told me.”

In “Mysterioso,” another story of infidelity, the narrator reveals that he was working on a novel, which happens to be the characters of the first story in Warsh’s collection, two Russian women and their louche Russian husbands and lovers. A Place In The Sun might best be described as a collection of frame stories; a "frame story" is a literary device that acts as an organizing mode for a set of narratives related by theme, character, circumstance or setting. Boccaccio's The Decameron, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Sanskrit epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, are examples of the frame story.

As I progressed through A Place In The Sun, it became increasingly apparent that everyone craved sexual intimacy, quite often in dubious circumstances, the “forbidden fruit” dynamic at full play.

I thought of Freud’s Civilization And Its Discontents and its central premise of desire versus propriety. One way or another, what we want, what we really want, is either against the law, or our personal code of conduct. Why else do we revere rock stars so much? When the Rolling Stones sang “I can’t get no satisfaction” some 45 years ago, they were summing up the human condition.

Warsh states the problem succinctly, and in a way I think Freud would appreciate: “I sometimes wonder,” states the narrator of “Endless Embrace,” “why laws exist at all, since most people seem to be following their own instincts anyway, no matter what. No penalties for anything you do. No jail sentences. If you do away with restrictions, you might end up creating an atmosphere where a new kind of love -- a love that evolves out of freedom, not fear -- is possible.”

I would argue against this, using Wall Street and its pillage of the United States as an example. What the narrator proposes in the above paragraph would be a dangerous experiment. I also remember similar experiments in the 60s, people attempting to enjoy multiple lovers and sexual partners. These experiments either ended badly, or culminated in lot of hidden, neurotic torment, people trying to convince themselves that their jealousies were the stuff of a benighted, Puritanical culture and needed to be done away with so that people could rediscover their innate innocence, and learn to love one another on a deeper, more cosmic level. Jealousy was shameful, a toxic emotion identified with the possessive asphyxiations of the mainstream, bourgeois culture.

The idealists promoting free love were sincere, but wrongheaded. It looked good on paper, but the reality was far more thorny. Free love was intended to be an antidote to war. But what ultimately stopped the war in Vietnam was a lot of anger and protest. Free love was pretty much a bust. The hippies I knew were either vapid, or promising candidates for therapy.

Still. It’s a nice thought, and one could argue that its reverse, a strictly monogamous culture in which sex is considered embarrassing or shameful, leads to even worse abuses. It could also be argued that choosing a partner for life is a decision that should be made in middle age, or at least weighed with a full consideration of what that decision entails. Monogamy ain’t easy. But neither is adultery.

In “Harry Cray,” the last story of this series, we find more information about the two Russian women, Marina and Irene, of the first story, “The Russians,” in which Harry Cray made an appearance as a detective, and becomes Irene’s lover. A third voice emerges in the narrative, a woman named Judith, who lived in the same building as Marina and Irene, and became quite intimate with them, as well as a prostitute named Yvonne de Marco.

“Harry Cray” has the flavor of a film noire. The sex is intense, rain batters the windows, the night holds dangers and mysteries. Much of the drama takes place in Brighton Beach, a neighborhood adjacent to Coney Island dubbed “Little Odessa” because of its large population of Ukrainians, which has long been associated with crime and gang-violence.

One of the most moving speeches occurs in this story. Judith, who has a brief affair with Harry Cray, and also gets involved with Dimitri, one of Irene’s and Marina’s Russian friends, essentially a thug, and who also has a huge crush on Marina, remarks on the strangeness of being intimate with someone (in this case her husband of eight years), and then -- with the kind of ironic reversal that turns our lives inside-out -- becoming so distant as to be more than a stranger; a stranger, at least, has the promise of novelty and mystery, and has not yet been judged, or reduced to the dreary rank of the familiar. “The opposite of intimacy -- of sharing everything with someone else -- is distance,” Judith remarks in an interior monologue. Her words breathe with the slow rhythm of heartache, of extremity, with the pain they are unable to contain.

I felt my heart had split into a million tiny fragments. Shards of someone no one cared about anymore. Broken -- that’s what it means -- split in two. Shattered. There are all these words you can use to describe this feeling, but words don’t do it justice. There’s always something beyond the words that can’t be defined.

Monday, November 15, 2010


I heard the following prose poem on France Culture’s “Poem Of The Day” series this morning, presented by La Comédie-française. Its profound physicality struck me, a physicality emanating from the production of language. The sensations are sharp. The work is from a collection by Bernard Noël called Extraits du Corps. I hoped to find a copy at the University of Washington or Seattle Public Library, but alas, no such luck. I will have to order a copy from France. Meanwhile, here is the prose poem, titled “Insaisissables, les mots,” followed by my translation.

Les mots éclatent au ras de ma peau. Le regard est fixe et le buste conjoint bizarrement des elements mobiles et des elements immobiles. Les gestes se rassemblent à l’intérieur de la poitrine, comme les circles sur l’eau. Et le cou se prolonge loin dans le corps. C’est depuis l’estomac qu’a poussé l’abre qui empale ma gorge. Il monte jusque dans mes narines. Un court-circuit coupe le courant des nerfs dans ma nuque. C’est alors que ma tête se penche vers un lac d’argent lisse, qui tout à coup s’éparpille dans l’espace comme un bac de mercure. On me trépane pendant que mes jambes s’allongent, et perçent des nuages. D’un côté, il fait mal; de l’autre, il fait nuit. Entre les deux, une hélice tourne dans le ventre, et l’air reflue vers ma bouche… j’ai la gorge pleine de plumes, avec de bruissement agreeable. Je crache des cellules…

Words burst on my skin. The gaze is fixed and the chest strangely mingles mobile elements with immobile elements. Gestures assemble themselves at the interior of the chest, like circles on water. And the neck lengthens far into the body. Since then the stomach pushes the tree which impales my throat. It rises as far as my nostrils. A short-circuit cuts the current of my nerves in my neck. It is thus that my head leans toward the lake of smooth silver, which all at once scatters in space like a tub of mercury. They drill my skull while my legs stretch out and pierce the clouds. On one side, bad weather; on the other, night. Between the two, a propeller turns in the stomach, and the air surges back toward my mouth… I have a throat full of feathers, with an agreeable sense of rustling. I spit cells…

Thursday, November 11, 2010

New York, Part Five

Our hotel was wonderfully quiet. With one notable exception: the man in 720.

Each evening, some time between 7:00 and 10:00, could be heard a man shouting in room 720. Things like, “don’t touch me,” or “I’m not signing it.” We did not hear anyone else. Just him. Shouting, in a voice full of desperation and anguish, “get away from me,” “no I won’t.”

We speculated. Roberta suggested he might be an actor rehearsing his lines. I thought he was recently divorced, or about to be divorced, and had taken refuge in a hotel room until he found his bearings and a new place to live. We also thought of a third possibility, which is that he was psychotic, his wealthy parents in denial, renting him this room to prevent him from being institutionalized, or homeless, and who knows, maybe his parents owned the hotel, and had placed their psychotic son here, not knowing what else to do.

That was the only disturbance. We did not hear any street noise, people walking above our heads, people slamming doors in the hallway. The outbursts of the man in 720 were very short, and he was far enough down the hallway that his voice wasn’t that intrusive.

We were also impressed with the room’s cleanliness. There was no dust. Anywhere. Not on the molding, the TV, the curtain rod, the lamps, or the top edge of the doors. The décor was warm and tasteful. Even the artwork on the walls was good, not the usual clichés of touristy iconography. Each day the cleaning staff arrived and cleaned the room and made the bed timing their visits perfectly to our own erratic rhythms.

It rained heavily and persistently on our last day in New York. We went to a Bank of America automated teller on Broadway and West 79th. There were two machines in a locked room. Opening it required a swipe of a bank card, similar to the Metro subway turnstiles. Roberta’s card wouldn’t work. Fortunately, a woman happened by and let us in. I took out a sum of cash and as we left and were getting sorted out a man shouted at us from a magazine stand. I had dropped my driver’s license. I thanked the man, and put my driver’s license back in my wallet.

We took the subway to MOMA on 53rd street. We wanted to see the abstract expressionist show we had heard so much about. It was spectacular. The abstract expressionists had a tendency to do things on a grand scale; many of their canvases are huge. You need to be standing in front of one to really appreciate its magnitude. Same with the colors. They’re intense, and thick, and daubed on with great energy and physicality, qualities that do not come across in a book, or print.

I took notes, scribbling my impressions down hastily at the canvases that most impressed me, so that I might be able to find them later on the internet, or a book, and study them more closely.

The first that knocked me out was right off the elevator on the fourth floor where most of the paintings were on exhibit. This was The Vertigo Of Eros, by Roberto Matta. I took my little spiral notebook out of my breast pocket and scribbled: A meditative space of brown and black triangles spheres lines a pebble toward the center rings of water moving out as in a pond. The more one looks the more elusive and evocative the shapes become. A tangle of delicate little bones toward the bottom are encompassed by an overall sense of volume. Litter of bones as if in a cave with echoes of Cro-Magnon past. A sense of power and magic amid an existential vastness. A dark whose light is buried in corners, leaking through the canvas from some elusive source.

The She-Wolf, Jackson Pollock. Ferocity savage raw colors leaping circulating alive as if fed by veins of color.

Gladiators, Philip Guston. Vivid primary colors tension release curves of energy dramatized in color.

The Flame, Jackson Pollock. A red flame red heat crackling energy.

Shimmering Substance, Jackson Pollock. Just that: shimmering substance.

Slow Swirl At The Edge Of The Sea, Mark Rothko. Elegant fine shapes arabesques understated colors.

Summation, Arshile Gorky. Huge canvas of drawn bone-like shapes.

Personage With Yellow Ochre And White, Robert Motherwell. Bold hard shapes circle in black two lines beneath evoking a torso two sharp triangles to right and left a surface like a table with a single leg. Something like a head at the top of the circle triangle neck egg-shaped head with black shadow extending to the right. Helicopter blades at the very top representing a woman’s coiffure perhaps.

Tournament, Adolph Gottlieb. Warm colors dots spheres lines crisscrossed star at the center.

Painting, 1948, Willem de Kooning. Black and white a shape like my hat in the upper right corner.

One: Number 31, 1950, Jackson Pollock. Gigantic.

White Light, 1954, Jackson Pollock. Energy incarnate.

Purchase, 1953, Willem de Kooning. Angry demented demonic form slashes of paint violent and fast. “Flesh is the reason oil painting was invented.”

Photograph, Untitled, 1949, Robert Rauschenberg. Carriage with hole in the background that looks like a moon.

1951-T No. 3, 1951, Clifford Still. I love the black in the Still painting huge and majestic with jolts and runs of warm orange and light beige.

A Tree In Naples, 1960, Willem de Kooning. Electrifying blue powerful alive explosive.

We returned to our hotel room to rest before dinner. James Heller Levinson had invited us to dinner at a restaurant on East 67th Street near Lexington called L’Absinthe. We emerged from the subway at West 59th Street and got lost. Our plan was to catch an E train and go across town to 59th and Lexington and walk up 3rd Avenue to East 67th. But we could not find the E train. We tried catching a taxi. This proved howlingly unsuccessful. I would have had an easier time hitchhiking nude and carrying a sign that said “I love socialism President Obama and gay sex” in Greeneville, Alabama. We continued walking and eventually made our way to the restaurant, which proved to be an elegant place with art nouveau furnishings, tulip-shaped chandeliers and dark wood paneling.

James, who is by nature ebullient and outgoing, greeted us warmly. He and Roberta ordered some champagne and I ordered some cranberry juice. James seemed completely at home there. He told us a story.

He was dining alone at L’Absinthe, spending an hour or so writing and enjoying a cocktail before dinner. To his immediate right was another gentleman dining alone. James avoided conversation in order to concentrate on his writing, but then the man began to pay his bill and commented to James about how great the place was, except for the music, James felt a responsive cord. He fully agreed. He confessed his love of music and expressed his dismay at how most of the restaurants in New York had poor music emanating from their speakers.

A conversation began. The man said he was from Vermont. “I love Vermont,” said James. He loved the seasons there especially, and further elaborated that when he was living in Los Angeles he subscribed to Vermont Life and pinned the seasonal issues to his wall so that he could see the seasons change.

“Thank you,” the man replied, revealing himself as the publisher and head editor of Vermont Life.

“Only in New York,” said James, “does this sort of thing happen.”

For dinner, I ordered the choucroute royale à l’Alsacienne which came on a silver tureen: bacon, ham hock, bratwurst, knockwurst, and boneless pork loin on a generous mound of sauerkraut.

After dinner, James ordered some absinthe for he and Roberta. An apparatus arrived with little spigots and doodads. It was filled with a greenish liquid. Sugar cubes were places across their glasses and the liquid in the hookah-like bottle trickled over the sugar and into their glasses. James offered his glass for a sniff. It smelled like licorice.

Roberta, who is a very light drinker, commented that the flavor was superb, but that it actually had very little kick to it.

James helped us hail a cab, which are easier to get after seven or so, when the rush hour has dissipated. James opened the passenger door as Roberta and I clambered into the back and shouted directions to the driver. I found out later, when I went to pay the driver, that James had also paid our fare!

Thank you James!

The flight home was a tad smoother than our initial flight (there was less turbulence over Montana’s Bitterroot Range), though longer, since we faced headwinds rather than tailwinds this time.

Back home, I went to buy some cat food the following day. Everything seemed in slow motion. People walked differently than people in New York. Less hurriedly, less determinedly. The constant rush of people in New York, frantic to make a buck in order to hang onto their houses and be able to feed their kids and maybe one day send them to college, or just plain survive amid a merciless hustle and bustle, was conspicuous by its absence on the streets of upper Queen Anne in Seattle, where people strolled, ambled, moseyed.

Mosey. Such a western word. People do not mosey in Manhattan. People zoom. Zing. Streak. Whiz. They leave the moseying to us. Those of us west of Weehawken.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

New York, Part Four

We saw two shows at the Met: Miró: The Dutch Interiors and Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance.

We began with the Mirós, the smaller of the two shows.

Miró had a great admiration for the Dutch masters of the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly the innkeeper and painter Jan Steen, whose scenes were full of exuberance and chaos, the messiness and lustiness of everyday living.

Miró made a trip to the Netherlands in 1928 and visited the art museums in Amsterdam, where he bought a series of picture postcards of the paintings. He used these as a point of departure, mirroring the compositional arrangement of the paintings to his own renditions.

For instance, in Jan Steen’s Children Teaching A Cat To Dance, in which four youthful figures are grouped around a wooden table, one of them holding a cat erect by its paws while a young lady in a vivid blue dress leans in while playing a recorder as her companions laugh heartily and a Cocker spaniel barks and an old man in window looks sourly down at the event, Miró transmutes Steen's figures and objects (tureen, spoon, towel, stool, lute on the wall), with the caprice and whimsicality of his inimitable style. The woman in the blue dress becomes an amoebic blue blob with a narrow waist, the youth holding the cat becomes a big white blob with a circle for a head and a dot for a nose and a crescent moon for a mouth, the dog becomes a cow and the sour old man looking down out of the window becomes a spider. The cat is still somewhat recognizable as a cat, and there is a tiny lute hung on a background of light green. A large brown ribbon swoops up energetically from the back of the cow and bends over a black strip with an arrow at its tip. A face distorted in green, its features delineated in black, gazes up at the cat. We find the details of Steen’s 17th century household scene translated into the manic abstractions of the 20th.

The Jan Gossart exhibit was breathtaking. The beauty was intense. Uncanny.

It was a huge show. We spent several hours there and didn’t finish.

I took some notes on some of the works that I found especially striking. I wrote “beautiful moonlight scene angel descending behind a crescent moon luminous among diaphanous clouds” for Christ In The Garden Of Gethsemane. I had never seen a quality of light rendered so beautifully.

Gossart’s colors were warm and luminous, his details meticulous and fine. All the themes were Christian, taken chiefly from the New Testament, which was the dominant trend of the time.

The reason Gossart’s colors exuded such intensity and light had partly to do with a fresh development in fixing pigments to the canvas. Painters Hubert van Eyck and his younger brother Jan van Eyck discovered that a combination of linseed oil and nut oil mixed with some resinous substances formed a quickly drying varnish, and that by mixing it with pigments an unsurpassed brilliance was achieved.

We returned to our hotel to rest before my reading. We passed an Italian restaurant on the way called Al Dente and decided to have dinner there.

The pace at Al Dente, like all the restaurants in New York, like all of Manhattan, was intense. Waiters and busboys moved with astonishing speed and alacrity. Except for the owner, they appeared to be Latino. I found this to be the case at all the restaurants.

New York, I discovered, has no minorities. Races are so proportionately diverse and intermingled that no one race stands out. A good third of the population were the progeny of mixed marriages, which, considering the racial and ethnic diversity, are inevitable.

The only time I visited a place where nearly all the people were white, was in the high end restaurants, and the financial districts.

It was dark when we left for the reading. We arose from the subway at 14th Street and walked the rest of the way to St. Mark’s between 10th and 11th Streets on Second Avenue. We passed a lot of shops whose fronts were open to the street, their wares on display on the sidewalk. We passed a shop selling hats and Roberta spotted a hat she thought I would look good in. I needed a hat. I brought my wool running hat, but it was always a little damp after running in it, and took forever to dry. A man with a Russian accent was on us in no time, inviting me to come and try on the hat. I told him I didn’t care for that particular hat and he immediately produced another, a black fedora. Roberta was eager that I try it on, and so I went in, put it on, and looked in the mirror. I had to admit, it looked pretty damn cool, so I decided to buy it. It sold for $13.00 bucks. I asked the salesman if he could remove the tag. I expected him to produce a pair of scissors, but instead he flicked a cigarette lighter on, put the flame to the plastic cord, and severed it with the flame. I thought this a curious way to remove tags, though don’t think I would try that at home, where I would most likely end up burning our building down.

I felt funny in my new hat. Like Frank Sinatra. Or a Bowery punk. De Niro in Mean Streets. I didn’t know whether to burst out singing “Strangers In The Night” or shoot someone.

Joanna greeted us at the church. We went in. They were just setting things up. A young woman sat a table by a little tin box to take money.

Eventually, people began to arrive. Andrew Joron and Will Alexander appeared. They had read the night before at the Poet’s House, which John Yau had set up. I hadn’t seen John since he visited Seattle in 2006 and looked forward to seeing him, but he hadn’t been able to come. John’s wife Eve Ascheim, who had provided the magnificent cover for my novel The Nothing That Is, was out of town and so John was home babysitting.

My eyes popped out of my head when Seattle friends Nico Vassilakis and his partner Crystal Curry walked through the door. It turns out by chance that they happened to be in New York at the same time as us. I’ve known Nico for almost 20 years back home in Seattle, so it was an unexpected joy to see he and Crystal stroll through the door at St. Mark’s in the Bowery.

Truck Darling (formerly known as Jeni Olin) was the first to read. She is a diminutive, elfin, sparkly and energetic woman with a lot of panache and feeling. Her poetry is written in the New York style, à la Frank O’Hara, full of conversational zest, bizarre images and comparisons, lively allusions to the contemporary and particular, itchy scrotums and seasick clairvoyants, a poetry of plenitude and fists, sonic booms and palpable pleasures, a poetry that is physical, hectic, incisive, “sharp & warm & exclusive like after-swim bowel movements.”

There was a short intermission after Truck’s reading. Will got up and played some jazz on a grand piano that happened to be in the room.

I read for a half hour. I felt relaxed. At home. It was nice. A good feeling.

We returned to our hotel after the reading. I was thirsty. A rabid need for water. I thought about going to the Duane Reade across the street for some Gatorade but was just too tired. We entered the room and I spotted a bottle of Evian water. Hurray! But Roberta told me you had to pay for it. It was $6.95 if I took the cap off. I went to the bathroom and drank from the tap.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

New York, Part Three

Belvedere Castle is a Victorian folly built in 1869. Like many other of Central Park’s charms, we came upon it without knowing it was there.

In architecture, a folly is a building constructed fundamentally for adornment, to enhance a location with its charm and oddity. Originally, these buildings had no other use, but over time they often assumed a secondary purpose, which was the case with Belvedere Castle. In 1919, the National Weather Service began taking measurements from the castle’s tower with scientific instruments that determine wind speed and direction. Rainfall data was recorded just south of the castle and sent to the weather service’s forecast office at Brookhaven National Library on Long Island. The castle is still used for this purpose today.

I like stone. Stone structures particularly. I like to feel the stone with my hand, its roughness and density, and take in the weight and massiveness of it with my inner, proprioceptive barometer, mounting granite steps, leaning against the wall of a parapet or balcony, matching soft skin to hard stone.

Solidity is calming. It offers cloister from the chafing of the rough, chaotic world. It endures the vagaries of time. Fronts the blasts of foreign trumpets. Its roughness is a balm. Its density dazzles the blood.

The castle is mounted on Vista Rock and takes in a broad, panoramic view of the park. Roberta hadn’t been able to find film for her camera at the Duane Reade drugstores all over town. It would seem that the digitalized camera is now so popular no one bothers to stock film anymore.

A trim, well-dressed young man with black hair happened by when we were standing on the balcony and asked if we could take his picture. I held Roberta's purse while she photographed the man. Three young women happened by and stood behind him. "What luck,"I said, "you've got some pretty girls in the background." I have a facility for saying dumb things. One of the women glanced embarrassedly my way, though I think there was a hint of amusement on her face as well. Roberta got the picture, and I asked the young man where he was from. Columbia, he said.

We climbed a narrow spiral of granite steps to the very top of the castle and looked out, then returned to the balcony below. We passed through a room where a man sat a desk with maps and merchandise in a glass counter. "We'll take it," I said. He looked at me with confusion. "Take... wha.... " "The castle. We like it. When can we move in."

There is a serene body of water below the castle called Turtle Pond, which is man-made, and filled with New York drinking water. There are five species of turtle in the pond: Red-Eared Slider, Snapping Turtle, Eastern Box Turtle, Musk Turtle, and Black Skimmers. The pond is also full of little fish, pets people discarded when they moved and did not have the heart to flush down the toilet.

Below the castle, scattered on the ground below a deciduous tree with thick, blunt, lumpy branches were a litter of long black pods. Roberta picked one up and said it was a Kentucky coffee tree. Kentucky pioneers roasted the seeds as a substitute for coffee, a practice they relinquished with relish when the real thing became available.

Monday, November 8, 2010

New York, Part Two

On our second morning in New York we decided to go for a run in Central Park. Which I had always thought was flat. Central Park is not flat. It is quite hilly. Not big hills, but hills.

The paths in Central Park incline toward reverie. They meander. They encourage strolling. The easy, dawdling steps of the flâneur in a state of insouciant absorption. The park is antithetical to the neatly patterned efficiency of New York’s streets. Consequently, we found ourselves having to switch trails frequently in order to match our goal of doing a three mile loop of the park to the labyrinthine whims and crotchets of the paths.

We encountered a section of the park called The Ramble. This was the essence of Central Park’s contrariness to the regimentations of commerce. Small secluded glades, hollowed out of rocky outcrops of glacially-scarred Manhattan bedrock, charm the north shore of The Lake. It is densely wooded with black locust, serviceberry, shagbark hickory, American holly and black cherry. One of the paths is named “Poet’s Alley.”

I particularly liked the bridges. The Ramble Arch, for instance, is a small stone bridge under which The Gill, a tiny stream, burbles beneath. It looks like something out of a fairy tale. A story of forbidden love in sixteenth-century Prague. A romance between a saleswoman and a quixotic frog. The birth of a metaphor amid the idleness of indigo swans.

It was cold. We stopped at a runner’s shop on the way back to our hotel. I saw a jacket that was a little heavier and warmer than the light blue nylon jacket I brought with me, but they wanted a $100 bucks for it. Roberta bought a hat for $26 dollars. It was black, and suitable for any occasion. She looked good in it.

We showered and dressed and went to breakfast at Nice Matin. There was a door in the lobby next to the elevators that led directly into the restaurant.

We really enjoyed this place. We’d had dinner there the night before. It was festive and noisy and crowded and busy. I had the pasta forté, bacon, dandelion, tomatoes, ricotta, garlic and jalapeño. It was spicy and filling.

What I liked best were the nonalcoholic beverages. Few restaurants take the trouble to offer any good nonalcoholic drinks. I find this frustrating and strange. Not a few waiters turn perplexed when I ask for something nonalcoholic. They rattle off a list of pedestrian substitutes, Coca Cola or ginger ale, with absolute dreariness. The spirit goes out of you. Everyone else is provided with a list of wine and cocktails of extraordinary diversity: banana daiquiri, sea breeze, gin fizz, tequila sunrise, Japanese slipper, golden dream, rusty nail, mimosa, etc.

We non-alcoholic beverage drinkers need beverages with panache. Mixtures of grenadine and ginger ale. Names like Beads Of Nebulous Dream. Flash Burn. Inertial Guidance. Eternal Passion. Pullulating Ladders Of Scintillating Foam. Cochineal Cock-A-Doo. Arapaho Peach.

Italian sodas are excellent. But strangely, few restaurants offer them. Pasta Bella, here in Seattle, on upper Queen Anne, makes wonderful Italian sodas with a broad range of flavors.

Chinook’s, by Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal, offers some tasty non-alcoholic beverages as well.

I ordered a Soleil du Tropique which was delicious. I can’t remember what was in it, but it sure was good.

We entered the park at 79th Street and meandered east. We stopped by a house that looked like something out of a fairy tale, a Baltic fir log cottage which was transported to the United States from Sweden and exhibited at the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. The structure was showcased as an example of Swedish woodworking. Frederick Law Olmstead, Central Park’s chief landscape architect, purchased it for $1,500 and had it taken apart, transported to New York City, and reassembled at its present site in 1877. It was first used as a tool house, then a library, then a comfort station and lunchroom, then an entomological laboratory, then the district headquarters for the Civil Defense during WWII, and finally, in 1947, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses established it as the official workshop for the Park Department’s Traveling Marionette Theatre. In 1970, a permanent theatre was constructed inside, and it continues to this day to present marionette performances, classic tales like The Magic Flute, Rumpelstiltskin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

A young black woman happened by and asked us to take her picture. She had an accent, and I wondered if she might be from French-speaking Senegal, Cameroon, or Ivory Coast. I craved hearing French. I’ve grown accustomed to hearing French every day on TV5. I didn’t think I would miss hearing it so much.

The woman handed me her camera and I looked through the viewfinder, which was blank. I said I couldn’t see anything in the viewfinder. Roberta told me to look down. I looked down and saw the woman in a screen. She smiled sweetly, and I snapped her picture.

There was a garden next to the cottage with several plaques featuring quotes from Shakespeare concerning flowers. “A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” “That strain again! it had a dying fall: / Oh, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound / That breathes upon a bank of violets / Stealing and giving odors.”

As we leaned over the rail to read Orsino’s words on the copper plaque, one of New York’s finest came trotting by on a beautiful brown horse. The sun was out, and the sheen on the horse’s body coruscated as the horse and cop trotted by at a vigorous clip.

Our next stop was Belvedere Castle.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

New York, Part One

On our first morning in New York I awoke to a massive nosebleed. I believe this was due to the dry air circulating our plane on our five hour flight from Seattle to Newark. It was worrisome, but not serious. It did interfere with our plans to go for a morning run in Central Park. Instead, Roberta ordered some coffee which arrived promptly a few minutes later, carried by a soft-spoken young Latino. It felt odd and embarrassing to be lying in bed while a strange man entered the room, performing a service. Roberta asked him how much he usually received as a tip. The question embarrassed him. He did not know how to answer. Roberta gave him a 20% tip. I don’t know if he was satisfied with this, but I think we were also supposed to have tipped the doorman who carried our bag from the trunk of the shuttle to the hotel lobby. He was a Japanese American man who seemed to wince with acute humiliation each time he opened the hotel door for people.

He had my sympathy. He seemed very ill at ease in his double-breasted doorman's uniform. I would have felt the same way. I wondered if, in fact, he might have been a surgeon or architect in Japan and must now feed his family by ministering to a door in Manhattan.

It was an imposing door, to be sure, but not so formidable as to challenge the strength and ingenuity of anyone accustomed to the marvels of the hinge and doorknob.

I enjoy opening doors. There are numerous things in life I continue to have difficulties with, not the least of which are the turnstiles of the New York subway system, but opening a door is certainly not one of them. Opening doors comes naturally to me. It stems from a grasp of the oposable thumb, an alacrity with the concept of pushing and pulling.

Nor do I mind in the least carrying a bag twenty-five feet. I may not feel that way twenty years from now, if I am still living, but for the time being I have sufficient strength and agility to carry a bag of some 20 or 30 lbs.

The flight to New York had been smooth and serene. There were no children aboard, no crying babies or fussy toddlers, and a benevolent tailwind eased our passage to the east.

I watched the landscape change during our flight from an altitude of some 35,000 feet. The aridity of eastern Washington, turbulence over the Bitterroot Range, forbidden wastelands of eastern Montana which revealed rocky crevices and outcroppings interspersed with fields of wheat or pasture land, the desolate plains of the Dakotas, the green and silver patchwork of Minnesota, the vastness of Lake Michigan, the sprawl of little streets and houses in Detroit, neighborhoods which, from the air, seemed to be empty, void of traffic. The eeriness of Lake Erie, a brown, disturbing water. The mountains of Pennsylvania, which easterners call Penntucky.

By far the prettiest state was New Jersey. I can see now why they call it The Garden State. It really is full of gardens. It looked like England.

The area around Newark, however, is not pretty. It reminded me a lot of south Seattle: interspersions of industry, motels, and residential areas. Copses of trees and shrubbery, tangles of staggerbush, black locust, and oak. Gravel pits, backhoes, ducts.

Tuesday, November 2nd, was our first day. We decided to visit MOMA. We were eager to see the Abstract Expressionist exhibit everyone had been raving about.

We caught the subway at Broadway and West 79th and got off at 50th Street. The hotel desk clerk, a young woman with a Brooklyn accent, had told us that MOMA was between 51st and 52nd Streets. It’s not. It’s on 53rd, between 5th and 6th Avenue. We must have wasted a good hour walking around blocks, up and down, this way and that, trying to find it. We were in the theatre district, not far from Times Square, at mid day, so the traffic was heavy. We were disoriented, both by having no sense of direction, and the intense noise and activity of the area. After an exhaustive search we finally the found the building, which is modest in the extreme, one would hardly know it was a museum of any sort, and wondered where the line was. There seemed to be no people at all. I thought we were in luck. We would have an exceptionally serene visit to the museum. But then we discovered why there were no people. The museum is closed on Tuesday.

IMPORTANT MESSAGE TO HOTEL MANAGEMENT: please make sure your desk staff are able and willing to provide information about museum schedules and have the correct addresses and other pertinent information. If there is a gap in their knowledge, I would recommend use of the computer. It’s easy to google up most places and pass the relevant information on to your guests.

We wondered what to do. Call it a day and return to our hotel, or try to find some other place to visit. Andrew Joron had mentioned a show at a gallery on West 57th, surrealist paintings by Gordon Onslow Ford.

Ford was one of the last surviving members of the 1930s Paris Surrealist group surrounding André Breton. He was influential in getting the Chilean painter Roberto Matta to segue from architecture to painting, organized some important surrealist shows in New York in 1941 which had a seminal influence on the Abstract Expressionist painters, established a haven for artists aboard his ferryboat named Vallejo moored in Sausalito, California which grew into a popular cultural center on the waterfront, and in 1998 co-founded the Lucid Art Foundation with Fariba Bogzaran and Robert Anthoine. “Lucid Art,” state Ford and Bogzaran, “is the convergence of the universal creative force expressed in a spontaneous work of art that elicits in the viewer a sudden awakening of an aspect of the inner worlds.”

The Ford exhibit was one of numerous galleries in The New York Gallery Building. It was tempting to see some of the other exhibits, but we were getting tired. We returned to our hotel, rested, and then went to have dinner at Nice Matin, the restaurant which was part of the Lucerne Hotel.

Roberta remarked on how much she enjoyed the rumble of the subways. It sounded like a stampeding herd of buffalo. It gave rise to excitement.

I had trouble with the turnstiles. The idea is to run your metro card through a slot which signals the turnstile to let you through. I would slide the card through, and slam against the turnstile at mid-torso, abutting the pubis bone. I would try again. Still no good. I saw a digitized message: card must slide through more slowly. Or: card must slide through faster. The computerized gadget was unbelievably fussy about the speed with which I swept my card through. It did not seem to like any speed with which I swept it through.

No one else had this problem. People sped through without even thinking.

Without pause. Without reflection. Easy as breathing.

Not me. The turnstile and I continued to have disagreements during our entire stay.