Friday, November 30, 2012

There are two bad musicians in the Bryant Park station—one or the other can usually be found in the passage from the 7 to the F. Sometimes both. One is a slight, dreadlocked guitar player. He stands with a Stratocaster weighing heavily against his hip and plays nothing but mumbly-bumbly open chords that dribble out of his little amplifier into a murky puddle on the floor. Not even chords to any song. Not reggae style, not nothing.

The other is a keyboard player who seems beset with mental problems. He plays clumsily, naively, sometimes looking up at the rush-hour crowd as though he were expecting a round of applause. He pounds out each note and chord with the same force, a hamfisted touch. But it must be said: he plays recognizable tunes. Today it was "Killing Me Softly With His Song."
There was some news this morning about the Concorde that crashed—some criminal suit was settled, or dismissed. I remembered the eerie video footage, taken by a trucker on the highway that borders Charles de Gaulle. In my mind I can see the trucker’s shadowy silhouette, alternating his gaze between the road ahead and the object of his camera lens. But of course you couldn’t see him. That’s in my imagination. You could see the stricken SST, head held up in desperation, drifting slowly over the roofs of hotels and factories, its engine a ball of flame.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Phone Conversation With a Woman Who Has a Funny Verbal Tic

“Good afternoon, sir. How may I help you?”

“I received a notification that we still owe something. I thought we’d paid in full.”

She asked me for my personal details. I provided them.

“Thank you, sir. Let me check on that for you, sir. Would you mind holding for a moment, sir?”

“No, that’s fine.”

“Sir, you pretty much still have an outstanding balance—hold on a minute, sir. Please. Just another minute.”


“All right, sir. I’m seeing that you pretty much owe eight dollars and eighty-three cents.”

“Really? Why is that? We paid in full the amount in the last notice.”

“Interest, sir. You pretty much still have to pay the interest. It continues to, um, accrue, pretty much.”

“We were told we had an extension until late November to pay the full amount!” I declared. I heard myself put on, with some effort, a suitable tone of mild indignation. “We paid that full amount. In full!”

“I’m sorry, sir,” she replied, just as perfunctorily. “I’m sorry about what you may or may not have been told.”

I fabricated a sigh. “The interest continues to—”

“That’s correct sir. The interest pretty much continues to accrue.”

“So you’re telling me that if I pay eight dollars and eighty-three cents right now, we won’t owe anything further?”

“That’s pretty much what I’m seeing right now, sir.”

I considered calling her out on it. I decided no. Still I pressed on pointlessly, asking dumb, repetitive questions, like a jilted lover.

“You mean if today, I write a check for eight dollars and eighty-three cents. I put it in the mail. Then what happens to interest?”

“All I can pretty much tell you is what you owe, sir.”

“With no more interest accruing?”

She paused, disconcertingly. But then: “That’s what you owe, sir. That’s pretty much all I can tell you.”

“We want to put this matter behind us. Never have to worry about it again. Interest, penalties.”

“I understand, sir. Of course.”

“You’re telling me that will be the case? I pay what we owe, we’re done?”

“Pretty much.”

“I think I’ll do that then. Thank you for your help.”

“You’re welcome, sir! Thank you for calling the Internal Revenue Service. Have a great day now.”

Thursday, November 22, 2012


because the marquise was too busy

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The breakdown of history into arbitrary, discrete segments called decades or centuries seems silly and misleading. The Sixties didn’t start on January 1st, 1960 and end on December 31st, 1969, after all. Everyone knows they started when Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles on February 9th, 1964 and ended when the Hells Angels sacrificed a young, black man at the Rolling Stones’ free concert in Altamont on December 6th, 1969. Though some argue they started when Sputnik flew on October 4th, 1957 and ended when man last walked the moon on December 14th, 1972. Each of these delineations may be ridiculous. Yet we know what we’re talking about when we talk about the Sixties. Or the Eighties, or the Thirties. Each of us has a clear mental picture, informed by a lifetime of schooling and media consumption, of what each era signifies.

But maybe it’s not so arbitrary. Maybe we don’t, in hindsight, read a pattern in a few signal events that happen to have occurred in the same decade, or century, and interpret that pattern to “mean” something, and attribute that meaning to the entire period. Something else is at play. We are conscious of these periods as we live them, and to some degree we behave—think, believe, act—in accordance to what we believe to be the prevailing spirit of the time. In other words, people did things in the Sixties—drop acid, listen to rock music, protest against the war—not just because that’s where the currents of history had carried them but because they were conscious that they were living in the Sixties and that doing those things, and feeling the way they felt, is what was expected of them as “citizens” of the decade. And when it became the Seventies—on January 1st, 1970, or at least within a few weeks of then—people started to do the sorts of things we now identify with the Seventies—snort coke, listen to disco, swap spouses—because they knew it was the Seventies.

President Obama will be remembered for having dragged the United States—much of it kicking and screaming—into the 21st century.

Friday, November 16, 2012

After the loss I went to the merry-go-round with the wife and kid. The one by the water, under the bridge. During the hurricane, pictures of it had appeared on social media: the ocean churned against the glass box that enclosed it, waves climbing ever higher, while inside the lights were on, illuminating the empty painted horses in suspended animation.

There was little sign that anything had been wrong. The air outside was briny—everywhere we walked had days ago been underwater. But everything was clean. Normal. Three trash cans sat in a neat row along the paved path: garbage, paper, glass.

As we rode, we observed attendants dismantling a child’s birthday party at the corner of the space. A stack of empty pizza boxes. A cross-sected cake. Favors abandoned on chairs and the tissue-papered table. Sara asked me how much I thought it cost.

“Six hundred dollars?” I said after a moment.

In another corner a photo shoot appeared to be taking place, featuring a handsome, rich, young couple. They clasped hands and faced each other as the photographer contorted himself on the ground before them, straining to frame their heads and the cresting of the carousel.

Jackie’s heart didn’t really seem to be in it so we left after a couple more rides. But she insisted on walking.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The platform was crowded with the evening rush, commuters clustered at the optimal spots for their eventual exit or trying to get there before their train arrived, some winding prudently through the crowd, others braving the studded yellow surface at the margins.

There was a commotion on the Queens side. A few men leaned over the edge all in a row, waving their arms as a train emerged from the far tunnel and proceeded unusually slowly into the station. I walked over to the tracks. I knew what I was about to see. But I looked anyway.

A young black man lay on the near rail, about twenty feet to my left. A little crowd had gathered above him, appealing to him, reaching out their hands. He was not bleeding as far as I could tell but he moved very slowly, feebly, as though he were suspended in another world, or just now emerging from a month of slumber. He lifted his head and gazed nowhere. Then he lay back down on the rail. I noted that his limbs were moving—they didn’t seem broken, he wasn’t paralyzed.

The incoming train came to a stop fifty feet or so away. Inside I saw the conductor on a radio handset, making the requisite call. People still peered down at the man, imploring him, mostly without words. He did not stir. But he was alive.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

I often think about how much there is that’s from the past. Deep in the past. Let’s say, fifty years. Sixty, seventy, eighty, more. There’s a lot: Most of the buildings on my block. The park across the way. The street itself—though I guess it’s been repaved. But someone a long time ago invented this street—thought it’d be a good idea. They made it straight—just as straight as it is today. They made it begin somewhere, end somewhere else. They connected it to other streets. They gave it a name—the name we still pronounce in 2012. That dead person—OK, a few people, a few dead people—created our reality, created what we experience as now.

We think we live in a hypermodern world, full of brand-new bells and whistles, the new ever supplanting the old. Yet we’re beholden to the past. Wasn’t it unsophisticated, relatively? Wasn’t it naive? In the past, blacks were slaves. Women couldn’t vote. But men were making blueprints for the world in which we live today.