Tuesday, December 23, 2008

We went to the Luxembourg Museum and there was a fairly arbitrary exhibit of modern art there called "From Miro to Warhol." That's a lot of ground to cover, when you think about it. And all they'd really done, it seems, is borrowed some art and picked from it a big, early name and a big, later name and themed the whole thing as a progression between the two. PR it, postcard it up for the gift shop and - voila! You, too, can be a curator.

There was a metal sculpture there by Jean Tinguely called "The Indian Chief" and every 20 minutes or so it would shake and vibrate like the dickens and scare whoever happened to be scrutinizing it at the time half to death. It made a godawful racket and anyone who hadn't experienced it yet would start like they'd just heard a stack of dishes collapse in their kitchen.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Swept Away in a River

We were buckled in and waiting when the captain came on and sighed. He said the water doesn’t work. We’d have to use a different plane. (Are they so interchangeable? Is it like when you get in a dud bumper car and the acne-scarred attendant directs you to the purple one that’s parked against the rail? Wasn’t this plane blessed and prepared for us, expertly calibrated to the rigors of our journey? Loaded with our luggage and victuals from Gate Gourmet? How is there another one which we may fly instead?) He instructed us to return to the waiting area to await further instructions. Faint grumbling broke out amid the rustle of clothes and carry-ons. Back in the terminal, I went to get a coffee. On my way back I was swept in the exodus of my fellow travelers trudging to the new gate: 48B.

A woman in her late fifties wept inconsolably as a stewardess peered at her and frowned, holding her hand up in a gesture both soothing and defensive. Do you speak Spanish? she asked. It happened that she spoke French. I found myself approaching and volunteering to interpret.

"What does she want?"

"Qu'est ce que vous voulez?"

She wanted to know when the flight was leaving.

"When's the flight leaving?"

The stewardess turned around to face the counter. "Bob, when's the flight leaving?"

"In an hour," said Bob.

"In an hour."

"Dans une heure."

"When's it boarding?" I asked.

"Bob, when's it boarding?"

"Half an hour."

"Half an hour."

"On part dans une heure et on embarque dans une demi-heure."

I was pleased with the simple, emphatic quality of these answers but the woman continued to stammer and weep. I suggested lamely to the stewardess that she might be scared.

"Does she need anything?"

"Avez-vous besoin de quelque chose?"

The woman must have sensed we were frustrated and so tried to gratify us with an answer of some kind.

"De l'eau," she said, almost like a question. Whisperingly. Water? It's what you say when someone asks you what you need but you can't tell them what you really need.

"Water," I said.

"Can you ask her what's wrong? Why is she crying?"

"Qu'est ce qui va pas? Pourquoi pleurez-vous?"

"I fly from Papeete," the woman said, in halting English.

"Long flight," I said to the stewardess.

"That is a long flight," the stewardess said.

"Maybe she's tired."

"Must be tired."

The woman broke in. "I go to New York. I must go to the funeral of... of --" The syllables expanded in her throat and she succumbed again to sobs.

"Tell her to have a seat and I will bring her water."

"Installez-vous quelque part et elle va vous ammener de l'eau."

We finally seemed to reach a sort of resolution. She turned and walked unsteadily toward the chairs. A few were empty but she did not seem to distinguish them from those that weren't. As she hovered nearby, the stewardess thanked me and we broke off. I went to look at planes awhile. When I came back I saw the woman from afar. She was sitting as the stewardess and some other airline people tended to her. Talked to her and touched her. Helped her manipulate a cell phone.

Later, on the flight, the stewardess served me drinks.

"I hope she's all right," I said.

"I think she's OK."


"Her husband died. In that country where she --"


"Yes, Papeete. He was swept away in a river. So she's going to the funeral. And his body's on the plane."

"Wow. That's... disturbing." Right away, I regretted saying disturbing. I wished I'd said a warmer word. Sad, maybe. Even awful.

"I know. It is," she said.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Isn't the verb "to die" a little too active? It oughta be passive. It oughta be "to be died." The moment you die is the moment of utter passivity. Whether you're a frail, 94-year-old financier in his last throes of renal failure, swathed in fine linens and resting on plump pillows, breathing your last and then softly expiring as your wife holds one hand and your mistress the other, or whether you're a testosterone-maddened 17-year-old at the wheel of his father's Prius, half in the bag from Everclear and grape soda, trying to take a hit off a bowl and it's wobbling between your teeth and your friend Matt's trying to light it but fuck these childproof lighters, man, they won't just light, and WHAM!, you hit an oak tree and it's all over in a fraction of a second, the actual passage into the void is utterly automatic, unwilled, indeliberate. Dying is the only thing we do that we don't do.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Had lunch with Britt and Tom at the Burger Joint at the Parker Meridien, that odd space that's segregated from the lobby and the jet-lagged Eurotrash drifting through it by theatrical purple curtains. Once you disappear behind them you're in a completely different world: a college campus hangout, circa 1983. Signs in crayon: "Order here," "Dump your trash in here." They give you the burgers in plain waxpaper that's already spotting with grease. A paper bag for fries. It's got that lowlife chic that a certain type of foodie has promoted in the past decade or two, based on an obsessive determination to find the best food in the unlikeliest places. This is the type that celebrates food carts, dingey delis, Chinatown holes in the wall. Perhaps the term "foodie" itself, as opposed to "gourmet," was really coined to describe them. Their endeavor's not exactly ironic because it's not undertaken with a wink, knowingly. There's an earnest anti-elitism and openmindedness at play here, an activism. If the real food pyramid is the one with three Michelin stars at the top and fish and chips at the bottom, they want to overturn it. But there are perils in this view: It's an anti-snobbism that risks becoming a snobbism, of course. And a lot of cheap food is crap. Worse yet, some places try to capitalize on this trend by presenting contrived downscale food. A lot of Philly cheesesteak places are like this. Any place that sells sliders but isn't White Castle is like this. The Burger Joint seems to me an obvious example of this, with its too-cute perch in the corner of a fancy French hotel. Seems like it's trying too hard to make some kind of point.

On the other hand, the burgers are pretty good.

And sometimes you have a great experience of this kind. Sara took me to Fried Dumpling on Mosco Street a few weeks ago. It's utterly drab and unpromising inside and out - in other words, by the logic described above, it's utterly alluring and promising. You get five fried dumplings for one dollar. That's it. Dumplings. There was something else on the menu - hot and sour soup? - but there didn't seem to be a drop of it anywhere behind the counter, nor bowls to serve it in. The old lady fried and flipped the dumplings, the old man sat and rolled them and placed them on metal sheets by the hundreds, hundreds, hundreds, hundreds. They serve them on a paper plate with a plastic fork and you can stare at yourself in the mirror on the wall as you eat them at a metal counter across from the stove. The skin of the dumpling is crisp in places but has a beautifully elastic, doughy quality below the immediate surface. You feel like you're biting something of substance. You break through and there's a hot burst of juice from the pork and then tender, beautifully seasoned meat, just fatty enough, not the least bit gristly, with just enough spices and scallion. Then you dump your trash where it says to dump it and walk outside.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

I ran on Monday and I ran on Wednesday too, and in the interim the patch of the Central Park Loop I'd taken had been transformed from pavement to coarse, tarry gravel, as though some great finger had come down from the sky to scratch it off.

I ran by the Tavern on the Green, shrouded behind its shrubs and trees. It always catches me by surprise that it's there, the Tavern on the Green. There it is. Dumb place.

I ran past a woman running and pushing a baby carriage. Is there nothing people won't do?

The dishwasher churns and whistles, stops and hisses. Starts again. There's something I can hear in there, tick-tick, tick-tick. A glass or something buffeted on a pot. Dishwashers are erotic.