We get in the car and drive out of town at 5:20 p.m. Swallowed up in the quickening dusk, we have a smoke, listen to lecture tapes. After an hour, I relax about the car blinkers which are not working.
Spend the night somewhere in Virginia, in a motel. The next morning, S. is high-pitched, trying to make time. He often glances in the back seat where there’s a pillow, duffel bag and sleeping bag, just as they were yesterday when he neatly packed the car.
“What’s going on back there?”
“It looks messy.” He keeps one hand on the wheel, the other reaches behind his seat and pushes and pulls at his art, his arrangement.
We pick up the city’s scent hours before we get there. New York sends shock waves all the way down the New Jersey Turnpike, in multi-media presentation: through the sky, the radio, the highway, the newspapers at rest stops. I wonder out loud which other cities send their raw nerve out so far in concentric circles.
We barrel into Brooklyn around 4:00 p.m., joining the bump-car drama of city driving and city streets, everyone racing to stop lights like little children fighting to be first, horns used like gas pedals to speed the world on, out of one’s way. The streets are in terrible shape; potholes and uneven repairs make driving more than 25 mph unwise. But everybody is bouncing down the street at 35 or 40, including us. The car blinkers suddenly begin to work again.
The sidewalks are crowded with people; short, plump-faced Jewish women bunch together in twos and threes, laden with shopping bags. Black children on rollerskates and skateboards weave around them with skill. Gawdy shop signs compete with one another in bright reds, yellows, greens, the billboard commericalism of the 40s and 50s. The afternoon sun gives it all a golden pink glow, and the likelihood of loving the place shimmers before my tired eyes as S. maneuvers the car through traffic, having instinctively donned old traffic manners. His eyes soak up details. He laughs softly, murmurs “oh god” a few times, rich with recollection.
As we make our way to Tilden Avenue where he lived for more than twenty years, S. tries to prepare me for the old neighborhood, downplaying its charm, exaggerating the deterioration. It is changed; we are visiting an old world carnival lost to an overflow crowd, unwilling and unable to protect the original dignity of the place.
I stop asking how much farther and try to see all this hubbub as home, so unlike the small Southern town I grew up in, with ten square blocks of homes with rambling porches and Garden Club yards on streets named for the trees that lined them: Maple, Elm, Sycamore, and Cedar. Nothing ambiguous: one doctor, one lawyer, one five-and-ten, an abandoned railroad station, an abandoned “community center,” and a hodgepodge of businesses that take up three blocks.
Daylight is fading as we pull up in front of S.’s old home. He’s described its size to me so often I’m expecting a large house. It is three stories — a basement, ground floor, and second floor — but is half of one larger building; there are separate, duplicate entrances. The entire structure is “large” only within the context of precious space, narrow driveways leading into postage stamp-size “backyards.”
The downstairs of S.’s half of the house has been converted into a dress shop. We go in, ask if we can look around. We poke in corners, gaze at the ceiling, and make one potently symbolic find. Behind the racks of dresses along one wall, we find a mural, in good condition, painted by an artist friend of S.’s father to pay off a debt. The mural illustrates monuments of world history, from one corner of the room to the other, peopled only by a barely adolescent S., neatly clad in shorts and shirt, hair slicked down, and younger sister E., impeccably dressed also, standing on a knoll, gazing across the Western civilization that brought them here to 5618 Tilden Avenue in the middle of the twentieth century. The whole thing is mildly preposterous, but I like it because the children’s faces are striking likenesses of the adults they’ve grown into.
When we leave, I feel unexpectedly troubled. I do not like leaving these two little ghosts locked into the wall to eternally endure the house’s history.
We drive past S.’s grade school, his high school, the synagogue where he was bar-mitzvahed, streets he shopped on; we get pizza slices where he used to. My body is aching from the long ride, but it is prime pleasure to rediscover S.’s past with him. On the drive into Manhattan, he claims everything we pass as his own: “That’s the library I used,” pointing at the Brooklyn Public Library. “That’s the Brooklyn Botanical Garden,” and on and on.
The deeper we get into Manhattan, the more conscious I become of the noise: it is as loud as an airfield of idling jets. I comment on it, and no sooner than I do, we hear the deafening roar of several sirens nearby. We pull over and an armored police truck escorted by several patrol cars races past. S. excitedly declares that there is a bomb threat; the truck is used to carry the bomb in, once it is found. I think he is testing my gullibility but he insists it’s true.
A friend of a friend has loaned us his apartment in Soho for the week. The location is perfect. We feel lucky, bring our things inside, look for windows. They open out into the street; with them open, we are separated from passersby on the sidewalk by steel bars. I’m glad they’re there, keep the curtains closed.
The inside looks as though someone just walked out. Unmade bed, clothes everywhere, used dishes around. The lighting is dull, and there is no fresh air. A flystrip hangs from the ceiling. There are soft and hard-core porn magazines all over the place. But it is clean, and warm.
S. thumbs through a copy of Cheri and is startled to see that the editor is Peter Wolff, who preceded S. as editor of the Phoenix, his college newspaper.
We drive over to Chinatown, have the first of many fine meals, come back and pass out with fatigue.
The next day we get up early. When we step out into the street, the weather is beautiful, sunny and warm, in the dead of winter yet. I want to hoard the moment; everything is unfamiliar and we have all day to explore. Traveling memories bubble up: narrow streets, coffees and pastries, and the vivid relaxation that only unstructured traveling can provide.
We find a small shop nearby, buy capuccino and drink it in the doorway. The coffeemaker there is very old, beautiful, and ornate. S. admires it, wants it, and for each morning thereafter, speaks affectionately of it as a pleasure of the city.
We do not rush anywhere. We spend an hour at the Met with ancient musical instruments, walk in Central Park, go to the zoo, then pick up some sandwiches. While we eat, we sit on benches at the entrance to the park and watch the idle drivers of the carriages for hire.
A horse nibbles on the rear of the carriage in front of him. The owner of the nibbled-at carriage pulls his horse and carriage forward. The unattended horse behind follows, continues to nibble, his owner apathetically lounging on the sidewalk nearby. The offended man is pudgy, bald and furious. He strides over and unleashes a blast of staccato verbiage in Italian, with wild wavings of hands and arms, inches from the face of the other man, whose reaction is to chuckle, hold his position, pull at his crotch with one hand, and then stretch as if flexing his muscles for a fight. Then he looks away as if nothing has happened. The angry man bellows with disgust once more, makes an insulting gesture with his hand, turns back to the small group of staring onlookers, chuckles and pulls at his crotch.
I am reminded of a sleepless night-long train ride through Southern Italy, kept awake by seemingly schizophrenic country folk, who laugh loudly and heartily one minute, and argue heatedly and voraciously the next.
Almost everywhere we go, the people, the food, the architecture are a wild conglomeration of every European city I have been in. The past is eye to eye with the future here, and the now is a powerful wealth of positive and negative potential. Streets are filled with beautifully dressed, expressionless people, with the ragged and old rummaging in the trash, with thieves, beggars, and those who keep the light in their eyes. We eavesdrop, stare openly, fall into step with friendly faces and share the walk down the block. On a crowded bus, I stand over a large old woman who is sitting; she grips a pen, is lost in thought; she has started a letter on her lap: “You are unfair to disadvantaged people. Also, I am sick to death of hearing you talk about your children.”
Streets are filled with beautifully dressed, expressionless people . . . with thieves, beggars, and those who keep the light in their eyes.
It is the people we keep in the foreground, not the theaters, galleries, shops, beckoning vendors. We savor it like a sweet when a veteran waitress in a downtown coffee shop steps out of her stereotypical rudeness (“Alright, ALRIGHT,” she screams at a customer who is waiting for his bill) and exchanges stories with us. She: “I moved here thirty years ago and what’s the first thing I want to know? ‘Where’s the Easter Parade?’ The cop says to me, ‘You’re standing in it.’ ”
We look up an old friend of S.’s who helped S. pick out his tenor recorder, years ago. “He is an accomplished musician,” says S. “He can be very intense.”
E. lives in a loft, a phenomenon of the Soho district which has received a lot of publicity as loft-livers seek the same legal rights as other apartment dwellers. Loft owners can raise the rent or ask tenants to leave once the loft has been made liveable and in many cases saleably attractive.
E. gives us a tour of his place, which has been converted from enormous emptiness to several rooms, multi-leveled. He delivers an electric monologue about his life, his home, and his opinions enroute. W. arrives in the middle of the tour; he ignores E.’s rap, which reinforces the idea that we are being given the routine introduction.
E. has books spread all over the kitchen table; he is studying for an examination to become a licensed masseur. He shows us the room he uses for massage: “I’m hoping to get mostly clients with blonde hair, good skin, and big breasts,” he says. There is no indication he is joking. Later when we kid him about it, he suggests that it was a joke.
E. is dominating the conversation, only superficially listening to anyone other than himself. He is so much the actor — his vanity as visible as a trail of toilet paper stuck on the heel of his shoe. I hide a smile when he criticizes W. for wanting to be an actor (W. is taking acting classes at night). I am feeling very relaxed, enjoying all of my personalities crowding up like school children to the surface of my vision to gawk at E., at all of us. The longer I watch E., the more endearing he is. He has so much energy he cannot stop talking. It is pedal-to-the-floor propulsion, his words almost colliding with one another, the pitch nearly nervous, his intelligence and NYC-deadened nerve endings dryly killing off his innocence, leaving his insensitivity to his own poverty clearly visible. He maintains his style as if it is his source, polishing it off compulsively, and placing it like a piece of screaming sculpture dominating the foyer of a gallery.
He maintains his style as if it is his source, polishing it off compulsively, and placing it like a piece of screaming sculpture dominating the foyer of a gallery.
He finds his silence in his music. S. hears him play the piano and the saxophone later. “He’s very good,” says S., clearly impressed.
We go to two movies, “The Marraige of Maria Braun” and the most promising porn flick we can find. I’ve never seen one before.
We pick “Inside Desiree Cousteau” because the reviews insist it is “the best in years!” I am fascinated and bored by it. There is no plot, no acting, but as many orgasms as can be crammed into two hours with no erotic build-up and no relationship between the people involved. I’d expected something sexier.
Desiree Cousteau is beautiful and young, obviously stupid, and seemingly sincere when she talks (directly into the camera) about her life as the most famous female porn star in the world; she loves it. And she “loves more than anything else, sex.”
The movie opens with her as a journalist, interviewing a governor, beside a pool. Within seconds, she is having oral sex with him. He makes “ooh ooh” noises; extra slurping and sucking sounds are piped in to support her performance, and a kazoo is playing somewhere in the background.
Throughout the movie, Desiree is eternally grateful to give sexual favors. In that place where I know this is a training ground for men and women on how they “ought” to be, I feel rage. The men in the movie affirm their value by “taking” the woman, consuming her; the woman is proud because she creates his power in her “surrender.” They steal from one another.
I think not of the profit-hungry filmmakers as the source of all this but of the conservative society that is afraid to allow clear sentience, clear feeling, to be allied with sex, and instead endows it with the forbidden fruit, an insatiable evil. When one begins to feel, to be open to another’s reality as influenced by one’s own, the will to be harmless and the desire to be fearlessly fertile are awakened.
“I’m the only woman here,” I whisper to S. A man gets up and moves closer to us, just a few seats down the row. He is hoping to see some action. I stare boldly at him for a second, and have the childish, ridiculous impulse to stick my tongue out at him; I don’t for fear he will misinterpret.
Before the movie is over, about half the audience leaves, mostly elderly executives, who slowly and laboriously rise from their seats and trudge out as if they have seen this film many times before.
S. is excited about showing me the Empire State Building. At the top, I am stunned by the thick layer of dark brown fog over the skyline. We look for trees, signs of life. We enjoy each other more than we have in a long time. We are sacrificing our crudest form of intimacy — fighting — to share more, conflicts reduced to brief disappointments, mere moods.
Back on the pavement, everything begs for attention. “No Littering” signs on street corners hurl themselves at us: LITTERING IS SELFISH, SO DON’T DO IT!! And the equally ignored signs: $50 FINE FOR SOUNDING HORNS.
It starts to rain, we begin to shop, find book bargains, explore expensive specialty shops we can’t afford. The seduction to buy is everywhere. We are untouched; none of it depresses me, makes me want to go home. My expectations are exceeded, the city cannot be stopped, and the force of its unrelenting energy blows a hole in my chest, clears out my heart, because it forces something in me to turn off: a need to consume experience as comprehensible, knowable. You cannot ever know a city.