|Looked at another house today, a rambler near the creek. One story. Brand new gourmet kitchen, said Crack Realtor and Uncle-in-law Gary; when he calls with a tip, I jump. En route I was digging around in the glove box of the car and finally found that Propellerheads CD Ive been looking for, so I arrived at the house as the Neighbors New Nightmare - someone who plays aggravating music at excessive volumes.
But they neednt worry. I didnt like the house from the street and nothing inside changed my opinion. It was built in 1953, and was a classic mid-century Rambler - why, the entire design proclaimed the New Rational Design of the postwar era ( including the large capacious basement which could be used as a fallout shelter in a pinch.) Flow-thru room design! Bathrooms with the latest in ceramic advances! Very clean, very simple, very . . . spooky? No. Haunted? No. Well, yes. But I brought my own ghosts.
It was the house I grew up in, transplanted to Minneapolis. The design was different, the style a little nicer, but all the details came straight from my Fargo home. The door frames, the color of the wood, the inevitable cedar closet, the riotously tiled bathroom, right down to the brass-lined indented fingerholes on the sliding doors. It was amazing. It was like meeting a richer, more successful twin of my childhood home. Then we went downstairs, and I nearly swooned: knotty pine. Acres and acres of knotty pine - and a BAR! A KNOTTY PINE BAR. Its retro heaven for someone, but I would feel as though the Circle of Life was complete - having lived in hovels, boarding houses, a nicer lake apartment, then a small house, then a fabulous East Coast modern townhouse (with penthouse view, dahling) and finally the four-square plastered solidity of Stately Lileks Manor, I would be crawling back into the piney womb from which I sprang.
Its not us, I told Gary. What I meant to say was Its me. And thats the problem.
Much work to do tonight, but happily I have the energy. (E-mail is behind schedule, again; apologies.) I am finishing up the revision of the Motel Postcard site - last night while listening to the radio I must have done seven new iterations of the banner for the site, each one slightly wrong - eventually I came up with a new idea which - of course! - requires redesigning all the pages. And there are now over 40 motel cards, with twenty more to come. But I mean for version 5.0 of this site to be the one, the real thing, so Im plowing through. When I start dreaming about these things, though, I know its occupying too much cerebral-CPU time. This morning I woke in a fevered state over the new Motel site design. Really. I wanted to get up and start working on it. Then Joe Pesci entered the dream and said I should get to work and fuggedaboudit. Which I did. When I got to work, Joe Pesci was in the next cubicle. In the dream, I mean.
Went to work. Blasted out a huge amount of copy. I am happy to report that I appear to have headed directly into the Manic Phase without spending much time in the Slough of Despair. Took time out to walk around downtown, thinking; bought three shirts at Banana Republic, two comic books, an Architectural preservation magazine, and a extra-large family-sized economy pack of nicotine gum. The woman ahead of me in line at the pharmacy bent over and asked the clerk a question; the clerk said - in a loud clear voice - You could go next door. Theres a place called Candyland.
They have popcorn and stuff.
And they have . . .some? The woman was well-dressed and well-coiffed, but seemed either dim, or not a native speaker.
Yep, said the clerk, a standard-issue Minnesota blonde. But you could buy it here if you want.
I SAID, you could buy licorice here if you want. We have licorice here.
Oh. Pause. Licorice.
Its in the candy aisle.
The customer leaned closer, and said something to the clerk.
OH! said the clerk. Liquor!
Okay, theres a store around the corner. Its called Haskells. I thought you said licorice!
Hah. Slave. Addict! Pathetic. Then it was my turn.
Two-milligram mint-flavored nicotine gum, please.
The clerk looked at me with complete incomprehension.
Today: style enhancement and stuff reduction. Also, rue and regret; I was walking through the woods this morning, trying to come up with the point to last nights Matchbook Playhouse. It seemed . . . labored. A stretch. But thats going to be the hallmark of these tales, I think. A cunning blend of obscurity, obviousness and needless embroidery.
What am I talking about? I dont know if Ive mentioned this project. Its a nightly exercise Ive been doing instead of answering my mail as diligently as I should. A friend gave me a big bag of old matchbooks for my collection, and these are the real items - classic design from the late 40s, 50s, 60s. Every night I take one book, look at it, then write for 30 minutes. No revisions, no hesitations, just set the timer and go. Itll be called Matchbook Playhouse (Your Thirty Minute Theater!) when I put it on the web. And just to show Im serious about this, Im not even going to design the site until Ive 20 matchbooks under my belt.
Anyway. Style enhancement: Bought shoes. This is rare. I like shoes, but they are not a crucial part of my wardrobe. Too bad. I am ever haunted by a sign in a Fargo shoe repair shop on Broadway: Youre Not Dressed Up if Theyre Run Down. (It was a Cats Paw brand heel ad, complete with sneering feline.) I walk a good deal, so I need something comfortable, and I always equate dress shoes with pain. By the time you break in a shoe, it looks . . . broken. Or if its comfy from the start, its a $900 loafer that will dissolve the first time you put your foot in a puddle. Well. Today Id had enough of my serviceable loafers - the sides of the heels had eroded so severely that Id end up walking with a bandy-legged Festus gait.
My approach was typical for most guys: go to store where I buy 90% of my clothes. Head to the part of the store where they sell shoes. Choose basic shoe. Ask for it in my size. Put one on. Walk around. Buy shoe.
Went to Banana Republic, for one simple reason: they dont ask me if I want to buy socks, and the clerks seem to have their lives ahead of them. At the mall shoe stores - the quality stores, I mean, not the stores that sell silly puffy sneakers made in clangorous Thai factories - the clerks are often middle-aged men, and while they are supposed to lend an air of solidity and craft to the shoe-buying experience, they actually make you feel depressed. No one wants to meet men who are 48 and spend their days bent over other peoples feet. Either the clerk silently curses his life, or he realllllly likes it, which is also alarming. And at the end they always ask if you want socks. I say no. Do I want leather protector spray? No. Extra laces? Well . . . no. And I feel like Ive taken money out of their kids mouths . . . except that they dont seem to have any families.
I could be wrong, and probably am. But. It seems to me that 30 years ago, there were a lot more older men in the clothing trade. It was an honorable profession, as good as any other. Now when you go to the store and the clerks older than 27, you think: what did you do to screw up your life? All your pals are in the back office in desk jobs, and youre on your feet nine-to-five - howd you blow it, pal?
This isn't right.
Now, the Weekly Geek portion of the program. Another exciting evening in the massive Stuff Reduction program, whereby all unnecessary items are being boxed, discarded, digitized, or placed in a large crate marked stuff. Its curious how little things can affect ones view of ones world - I had, for example, a double dozen CDs backing up the computers at various points. No more! All gone! I have a CD that holds all the files, AND it has a label. AND its in a color-coded box. AND it has duplicate in case the first one fails. AND theres an off-site version, too. Dates : color coding : dupes : offsite : very, very, oh-so-tres anal, but it gives me peace. All my work for the last ten years rests on these silver platters, invisible, obscure; you can slay it like a human, just by drawing a razor blade lengthwise and cutting crucial arterial lines. I destroyed the old CDs, cracking them in my hand and discarding the bright shards. Then I vacuumed. As I hoovered up the silvery slivers I thought: those are words, ideas, essays, fictional people, pictures of friends, photos of long-gone places.
In a way the miniaturization of data makes you less secure, not more; a chip the size of a thumbnail that holds a lifes work seems - well, I wont say it makes you question your accomplishments, because Ive never equated the size of a storage medium with accomplishment. There was a story in the paper last month about a guy busted for kiddie porn, and the cops said there was so much it filled ten computer hard drives. Which means nothing. In the early days I liked having a thick brick of 1.4MB disks to hold my collected work. If you dropped it on your foot, it might breaksomething. Just like a book. Now my collected work doesnt fill a CD. So? So nothing. Text has a small footprint. But these massively miniature media make (I really apologize for todays inadvertent alliteration) me feel less confident, not more. So Ill keep backing up and backing up and backing up.
Note: I have never experienced a hard drive failure. Ever.
Off to tonights Matchbook Playhouse. Note: due to ISP changes, there may be no Bleat on Friday. Everything resumes Monday.
It had better.
I am on a plane, bound for New York. The pilot has just informed us that hes turning the seat belt light off, but hed rather we didnt take undo our belts. They never really say why. Folks, if we hit severe turbulance and your belts off, youll hit the roof, open your scalp and shower everyone with freshets of hot blood. So Im going to turn that light off now. But wed like you to keep the belt on, if you dont mind. Thanks. He cant thank us enough. He likes us. He hopes we have a great time. The flight attendants, on the other hand, hate our guts, singly and collectively. The tallest - who has an absurd name that sounds like Nutrisweecia, or something like that - set the tone when a passenger put her bag in first class, and Nutrisweecia barked A or B? without looking at the passenger. The passenger looked as if she should apologize for something, but what? Well, for drawing breath, for starters. For buying a ticket and coming to this plain today.
I just went back to the head, and the stew was feeding trays into the warmer. Smells great! I said, assuring her I was a happy idiot who'd be joyful no matter what reheated bag of salty crap they tossed my way.
Toikey samwich, she said, frowning at me.
Oh, fine, be that way. Sorry for living. As I summed up their attitude in a recent column: hello, how may I hate you today?
I am going to New York to meet with the publisher of the Gallery of Regrettable Food. This puts me in rather elite club. When the first check arrives for the book, I will be one the few individuals whose web site has turned a profit. Its been an interesting path - from the start of the site in 95, just because I wanted one, to the first Gallery in 96, to version 2.0 of the GORF, which I did with the intention of building up an audience & traffic so I could sell the damn thing, to tomorrows meeting at Random House.
Stupid as that sounds, thats just how it feels now.
I would have preferred to jet in and out, do this in two days, but Ill be in New York through Sunday. Time to walk around and take pictures. Although this may be a problem. Yesterday I bought new shoes, and told the clerk I needed something that would stand up to a great dealing walking the next day without shredding my heel into red tatters. He assured me the shoe would not mutilate my feet.
They hurt already. Let me be clear: we are one hour into the journey, and my feet hurt. And its the only pair I have. Well. Im not going to walk around New York in cheap bad shoes with rundown heels. Fashion first. Dont want to look like an out-of-towner while Im staring up open-mouthed at the tall buildings.
Actually, I pity the locals. They dont get to stare up at the buildings. That would brand them a rube or a newbie. Its as if they all looked at pictures of the buildings in the NYC FAQ and left it at that.
Lunch approaches; while the card crawls towards me, Im going to get some mail answering in. I brought the iBook fully stocked with all the things I have to do. This is a working vacation. But the work is fun, Thats always been my goal: make work fun, And thats how its worked out.
In a bus now. Somewhere between there and the next there. Passed a graveyard - caught a glimpse of an endless expanse of tombstones, all standing straight like a crop of petrified stumps - then a corrugated metal divider jumped up and cut off the view for the length of the bridge. at first it seemed an insult, as though we weren't to be trusted with the sight of the dead, but after a few dozen yards it the unbroken rhythm of the metal seemed like eyes lowered in respect. At the end of the bridge, a big billboard - mattresses.com - and a pair of lovely long-lashed eyes, looking over the stone field, closed in repose.
And there's the Skyline Diner. It's not looking too well. Needs . . . new everything, really.
And now, the tunnel . . . and now, ladies and gentlemen, Manhattan. Time to stop typing and begin shameless gawking.
Later: Check in, drop off stuff, bound out of the room, hit the down button on the elevator, grinning, exciting, ready to hit the streets! And then I remember!
Slow elevators Like Sidney Greenstreet climbing the last ten stories of the Empire State Building. And only one of them, too. By the time you make it downstairs everything costs a dime more. The other elevator has been broken since around 1992 - there's a sign that says it's Being Repaired, but I look at it the same way a Soviet citizen hears that Brezhnev is being treated for his cold. I cant remember the last time the right elevator door opened. If it did open, regulars would rear back in horror, as if some hostelry equivalent of the Seventh Seal had been cracked.
By the time you're downstairs all enthusiasm has been blunted somewhat, and you hit the streets with a slight feeling of irritation. Makes you wonder how much the storied New Yorker contentiousness comes from slow elevators and little more.
Im at the Roger Smith, incidentally. It was cheaper than anything else, and its familiar, and its not a dive. Far from it. Its not swanky, but its reasonably well-maintained, and has a particular individual charm. The owner is apparently some fabulously wealthy fellow who likes to use the hotel to show off his taste in art. This time the lobby is decorated with pictures by, I think, Dan Lord. He recreates old boring aristocratic landscapes and portraits but adds little twists. In fact it wasnt until Id been looking at a large landscape for a minute, lazily looking at all the usual cliches, that I realized Godzilla was coming out from behind a cliff. Its quite disturbing.
Anyway. Got down, got out, went north and west. Up to the old RCA building, then left to Times Square. A few new changes - an extraordinary multi-story lobby for the new Lowes theater, a new video wall at the corner of the Conde Naste bldg thats just incredible; makes the Jumbotron look like a game boy. Then over to Grand Central Station, never lovelier - toured the new food basement and market, and goggled. Not everything has changed: theres still Hudson News, which employs at least 40 men who stand outside, ready to rush anyone who sticks a Playboy down his pants. But this trip I saw the new staircase, built where theres been signage for lo these decades. The building has symmetry now. It is extraordinary.
I went to the fabled Bunny Deli - fabled by me, at least; I've put it in many things I've written. Do they know, or care? No. The same damn panhandler outside is still there. Every single year, every night. Most of the panhandlers are gone, but hes still on the job. His trick is to open the door for you, so youre obligated to give him something. No. I noted this year that the Bunny Deli has finally opened one of the side doors in the store, and Im sure this pained them greatly - that was two and a half feet of sales space they were giving up. But now its possible to enter without confronting the wiley panhandler. Ill keep this in mind. When I saw he was still at his post, I did my standard fake - walk past, fast, close to the building, and cut in hard to get the door before he can.
The Bunny has jacked up its prices even higher - a sixpack of Bass Ale now costs - ready? - $22.00, and a pack of smokes is $5.25. Not that I bought any. Im quite disappointed in myself; I expected Id sneak a smoke here in New York, just for the sheer sensual pleasure of it. I wouldnt risk being re-hooked on nicotine, since Im still chewing the methadone cud. But as much as I think I might want to, I am horrified to find that I dont. I had allowed myself three cigarettes on this trip.
Maybe I should make myself have one to learn how much I dont want one!
Perverse, I know. Mind you, this has nothing to do with any deep desire for a cigarette - its just that Im in alone New York City, free to do anything! and this is about as naughty as Im going to get.
Tomorrow: the meeting. Now: Im going back outside. It's only midnight, and I'm . . . exhausted. But I'm here.
I'd had three hours of sleep. Hadnt slept solidly all night, since Im either jabbed awake by the garbage trucks beeping as they back up (Its four in the morning! Who are they going to run over?) or the clip-clonk of the loose manhole cover on 47th. I hear it EVERY damn TIME I come here. Next year Im welding the sonofabitch shut.
And of course the horns. It never occurs to anyone in this town that the empirical record on carhorn usage isnt reassuring. No one has ever been spurred to move or hasten their progress because someone honked -a - frickin'- horn. There are so many horns, so many cars, who can tell whats meant for whom? Every driver ought to ask themselves: what constitutes their reaction when someone honks at them? Right: shaddup! So everyones supposed to listen to them when they honk?
Idiots. My favorite was a infuriated fanfare from a half dozen cabs, all of whom were protesting . . . a cab that had stopped to let out a passenger. In front of a hotel, yet! The nerve! Da NOIVE! Why didnt the driver only pick up the passengers who fling themselves out the windows, tuck into a ball and bounce when they hit the ground? Dont stop! No one! Ever!
Morons. Anyway. By 2:30 I was greatly indebted to the hotels in-room coffee makers. Beaned up, cleaned up, off to the meeting.
I dont know how many buildings Random / Crown owns or occupies; the parent company, Bertelsman, occupies a Times Square HQ. One of my favorite buildings, actually; its the subject of a great ripping read about how to build skyscrapers and lose money. (High Rise, Jerry Adler.) But my editor is in 201 E 50th, an utterly unnecessary and uninspired late 60s exercize in filling out the zoning envelope. (That's it on the left-hand frame.) Interesting tidbit: the building is owned by Newhouse, which is one of my other jobs. This could either be seen as a merry coincidence or proof of the concentration of media power. But of course media power is not being concentrated. Newhouse doesn't own Random House. (They sold it a few years ago.)
We left the building,and conducted the afternoons business in a little bar around the corner. Katie McKiernan's, or somesuch Irishly named place; the barmaid poured with a leaden hand. She didnt care if half the drink went on the bar. Thats why God in His wisdom invented the rag. It was the sort of bar where youd expect them to pour the glasses half full, because most of the clients had the shakes.
Anny youse guys wanna buy a watch? growled a leathery elf as he passed by the bar. Usually Id say no.
Here I said Nah.
It was a good meeting. In fact it would have made an excellent Apple ad: I hauled out the iBook, opened up the website, and pitched a series of books. Not just the Gallery of Regrettable Food. Oh, no. The GORF is just the start. Were looking at calendars and lunchboxes, folks. Coffee-table books and coffee tables.
Anyway, it was fun. My editors a good guy. And to use the language which is no longer used by people who get it, he gets it. (Not to imply he doesnt get it, just that Im sure theres a more current term for apprehending the point with both hands.) And it reminded me of the old days on the East Coast: post work, pre supper, reeling from strong drink. So I went back to the hotel, called my wife at work and told her how well it had gone - not that I feared it would go poorly; I mean, we have contracts and all that. Its a done deal. What I care about, however, is the next deal, and making the GoRF a good, good book that actually SELLS. For a change. I was very happy.
Had coffee. Went to have supper at Blockheads Mexican Diner, where the food comes in alarmingly pointless proportions. Your burrito resembles the midsection of a python after its feasted on pigs. Youre almost relieved when you discover that its mostly beans and rice: whew! Went back to the hotel. Fell asleep. Woke up with a aciduous stomach. Why? Could it be the coffee, the Absolut, the coffee, the salsa, the excitement? Perhaps. For a while, though, I felt shaky. Went on hands & knees down to Duane Reede and bought some Pepto; back upstairs to sweat it out. Watched Butterfield 8, which changed the beginning, end, characters, plot and time-frame of the book, but otherwise got it right. By the time I felt better it was a little before midnight, and I realized:
It was time to start smoking again.
Celebrate the day with a cigarette! Why not? Im still hooked on nicotine, after all - the gum sees to that, albeit in limited, joyless doses - and I know Im not going to start again at home. THAT would feel like failure. Having one while On The Town would be okay . . . right? So I went for a walk around midnight, bought a pack. Put it in my pocket. It didnt feel right. It felt like a bar of plutonium. I thought: Ill go to Rockefeller Center. What better way to cement this very New York day than a cigarette in the heart of the heart of city? Sit beneath Prometheus and swap tales of our arguments with fire.
The plaza was closed. Dang. There were people milling around, taking pictures, smoking (damn Europeans; they smoke all the time, everywhere, with relish and gusto and absolutely no guilt. Same with the Japanese, but they dont seem to be enjoying themselves; it seems like something they have to do.) For a while I just stood there looking up at the RCA building, mentally editing out everything Id seen that day that hailed from the post-war period, and I just looked, and listened: car horns honking. Wheels on pavement. Passing chatter.
It could have been 1939. And if it had been 1939, it would have felt just like this. No matter how much people romanticize the past, an ordinary day was just an ordinary day, a warm night a warm night, car horns and passing cars and the talk of strangers just that and nothing more. But sometimes its easier to imagine youre back in time if you concentrate on the banal. A warm spring night in 39 would have felt, and looked, and sounded, exactly like this. Turn around and the illusion is gone, but stare down the alley towards Prometheus, look up at the white stone cliffs, and theres absolutely nothing visible that wasnt there 50 years ago.
An excellent moment for a contemplative smoke, but I didnt do it.
Walked back to 3rd to get something to eat, but mostly just to walk. I love to walk in New York. Thats really all I do. Theater is . . . contrived, compared to the improv you find on every block. Better sets, too. I found about 13 different all-night joints, each of which had the same congealed steam-table assortment at the same price, all equally unpalatable. Bought some rice (cold) and some chicken - which, to complete the evenings theme, appeared to hail from 1939.
As I walked back to the hotel, and decided I really didnt want to eat this stuff. Id give it to the mumbling woman who sits outside Raffles. Shes there night and day; shes there every time I come to New York.
As I came up to her, I saw her bent over a cup - she was spooning in chunky soup, having her supper. Hmm. Well, I could give it to the guy sprawled on the grate around the corner on 46th. But he was asleep. So I went upstairs and ate it.
At some point I just decided to cut to the chase, stop dithering, and do what it seemed like I was forcing myself to do: have the sanctioned cigarette. Sanctioned because Im away from everything and this doesnt count. Lit it. Took a drag. Thought:
I do not want to do this. Put it out.
Thought: oh, come on.
Lit another. Took a drag. Thought:
Put it out. Walked to the window and emptied the pack out the 10th floor, let the smokes patter on the roof of the adjacent building. Tossed out the matches, too.
I think Im cured. You know why I tossed them out? Because it was soooooo good. And because I looked at the cigarette in my hand, and it looked wrong. And this was after a couple of drinks, too. I think Im free.
Tomorrow: the March.
My God, I love this town. Just took the nighttime New York walk. Its a little before one. Saw a half-dozen tales - A blank faced young man staring out the window of a bar with a thick stogie screwed in his mouth like a big odorous pacifier; a thin short Arab man in a suit, his shoulders working twitching up and down, reading a Learning Annex catalog by streetlight; two Frenchmen who stopped me as asked for directions (today was my day to be asked directions. I must look like a native, but how hard is that? In certain parts of town, anyone alone, pissed off and wearing black and not carrying a shopping bag from a brand-name store is probably a native. Or a visitor who doesnt want to look like a tourist. Perhaps because my natural facial posture is a mild scowl, people assume Im a native. Also because I look like I know where Im going, because I do. I studied this place for years before I got here. It helps. I sometimes find myself on a streetcorner Ive never visited before, and I see a building I know from my studies: ah hah. I know you.
Anyway. On the way back to the hotel, I passed the bag lady outside Raffles. She gestured for my attention. After ten years shes finally called me over. Naturally, I stopped.
I have something to say to you, she said, with a smile. Never apologize.
Thank you, I said. Ill . . . keep that in mind.
Now I have a favor to ask. She was calm, cultured, kind. She spoke with the institutional patience of a veteran educator, and she did not make eye contact.
What can I do for you? I said.
Might you have a few extra dollars?
As a rule I do not give to panhandlers in other peoples cities; other people have to live with the consequences, and I dont. But the mentally ill are a different matter. I reached in my pocket and found three dollar bills and gave them to her. She took them, then paused.
Im sorry, she said -
Never apologize, I said.
Could I have quarters instead? She held out the money to exchange it for quarters. I reached in my pocket and gave her some quarters -
An elderly gentleman, walking with a stick but a good clip nevertheless, patted me on the shoulder as he passed, and smiled, kindly.
The woman took the quarters and handed me back a dollar. This transaction seemed to satisfy her - it wasnt perfect, but it would have to do. I bade her good night and walked along - in fact I walked fast to catch up to the old man, who had slowed to wait for me.
I saw by his collar that he was a priest.
Shes the most peculiar woman, he said, and I heard by his voice that he was Irish. Well, this was the ultimate New York moment, then. Sometimes shell take money, but most often she wont. And she doesnt like paper money.
Ive seen her there for years, I said. Everytime I come here, shes here. Does anyone know anything about her?
He shook his head. Then he laughed a silent laugh and shook his head again. I was in front of my hotel now, and said Good night, father.
Good night, my son.
Motto: you just cant go wrong giving money to the poor in front of a priest.
An excruciating day. A good one, but painful beyond belief. My feet ache in a dozen different spots from overuse and the violence done to heel and toe by these evil, evil shoes. I walked a lot today. Started at 47th, walked down to the Woolworth Building. By then my feet hurt already, and I considered taking a cab to the next destination, but Im not here to sit in a car. Im here to see things. So. I walked up to the Chelsea antiques fleamarkets, and didnt see anything; went to the Garage on 25th, where I sat out a rainshower looking at postcards. Found many, many, many wonderful New York shots, all of which will make it up here soon. Then it was back up the Spine of Gotham, one step at a time until I reached the Museum.
To put it in context for those who know not New York - I walked from 47th to about minus 10th street, then from minus 10th to 81st. (And then back to 47th.) A lot of walking. But it was spread over the day and interspersed with occasional moments of a rare, fine pleasure we call sitting.
Along the way I indulged in a few New York pleasures: local root beer in a starkly designed bottle, an interlude in a cigar shop, where the humidors pumped out the wonderful aroma in great grey gusts. I asked the clerk to choose a good cigar for someone who had quit smoking cigarettes, and had never liked the smell of cigar smoke. He sold me an Arturo Tito Fuente, or a Arturo Broz Fuego, or some such thing. Then I walked on.
Hadnt been to the Museum in a while, and nearly wept when I entered the Great Hall: right, stairs. Lots of stairs. Just what I want after walking 100 blocks: stairs! So I hooked left to the Greek collection. Ive noted in the last few years that my tastes have changed somewhat; after years of the Renaissance, Baroque, Mannerism and the rest, Im more interested in antiquity, 19th century experimental Isms, and American painting. (And Im happy to report I still hate the Middle Ages in all its forms.) The Greek selection was extraordinary, and included much funeral art. Many sad stiles devoted to perished people. But it was nothing compared to what waited upstairs: the Roman Mummy Painting exhibit. Id read about it in the Times and Journal, and now - unlike 99.9% of all the exhibits I read about, I was actually going to see it.
The very phrase Roman Mummy Painting seems odd and wrong, but then you remember that Rome ruled Egypt after Gus kicked Cleo & Tonys navy into the drink. Adaptable fellows that they were, the Romans picked up Egyptian traditions and gods, so you had these Mediterranian ruling-class faces painted on boards with little pictures of Ra and Anubis and all the other sideways-facing fellows who ruled the Egpytian cosmology.
But most startling of all were the faces themselves. Unlike the stylized faces of Egyptian art, these faces just leaped off the board. Real people. Caught in death and reanimated by the painters art. Dozens and dozens of them - room after room, all staring at the viewer with expressions that were utterly unique and all the same. The eyes reproach the viewer, beseech, say nothing and everything. Its indescribable. But what one keeps remembering is the age of these artifacts; its proof - rarely seen in a museum - that the Romans had portrait painting down cold. Its not that the Egyptians couldnt - its that they chose not to.
Then to the Egyptian rooms. Entered a mastaba - went down a narrow corridor until I hit a dead end, at at that point I expected the walls to close behind me. The mood was ruined by some loud silly youngsters who came in behind; at least the males had their caps forward. (In fact I noticed all over New York a trend towards forward-facing caps. There is hope.) Then to the great hall with the old tomb bequeathed to the Met by Egypt after the US ponied up several million to save larger temples from the Aswan flooding. Its an extraordinary sight, and of course its meant to stun you - you know its just the skeleton of the real thing, but these are the actual bones. And they are big bones. The size of the room and the scale of the monuments stuns and hushes the visitor. You stand there by the great calm pool, studying the building, letting yourself be drawn back thirty centuries. Then you look to the left - out the vast window that forms one side of the room; you see the trees, the towers, the people playing Frisbee on the lawn, and its almost as if you are looking at some incomprehensible machine that shows the future.
And its a good future.
I left the museum recharged, feeling as though Id just been to a really good church service. Time to head home. Only 37 blocks to go, and supper ahead. Maybe . . . pizza!
But pizza in this town is a problem. I did not want them to reanimate two cold slices in the oven. New York pizza, contrary to the reputation, is among the worst in the country; its usually made hours in advance, and its generally sauceless. So I asked if they could make me a little pizza. A small one.
No small, medium.
Yes, fine, whatever. I pointed to the smallest box in the stack, and said that size. Pepperoni, sausage, and extra sauce. Got it? Extra sauce. He nodded. How much?
How long will it take?
Ten minute. Okay, twenty.
Okay. I go to pay. The clerk has no idea what it costs. I said, your smallest size, pepperoni, sausage.
No. Just one.
Oh. Right. Two.
AKBAR! and here the counterman attempts to find the price. He comes back after a minute:
It had been a long day. My feet hurt. I was hungry. Eighteen? I snapped. He said twelve.
Twelve plain, ingreedian three dollar.
I deflated. Gave in. It was this or roam the streets on my aching feet for another day, looking for a meal. Sat down and waited. Twenty minutes later they presented me with a box that would hold amanhole cover. I looked inside: the pizza was at least 28 inches wide. I asked for a medium, I said.
I pointed to the small boxes. Whats that size?
For slice put in oven, he said.
Argh. Walked home as fast as possible through rush-hour sidewalk traffic, holding this gargantuan pizza box in front of me. Got upstairs. Opened it up. Took a bite.
No sauce whatsoever.
God, I hate this town.
Now Im in a cab. Heading for the airport. Many things are possible, but one thing is certain: Donald Trump should go straight to hell. I mean the ground should open and a dozen devils - all with better hair than his, just to BEGIN to rub it in - should wrap their scaly claws around his scabby legs and drag him screaming into the earth. I could forgive Trump Tower; its no worse than the rest of the glassy ilk. I could forgive the crappy casinos. Why, I could even applaud the renovation of the Columbus Circle Tower. But for this he goes to hell:
I stood on front of it this morning, jaw on the ground. Its not that its ugly - its just not ANYTHING. Heres the fun part:
Its NINETY STORIES TALL.
Just looked up from the cab window. There he was! Trump! Smiling! Inviting to come to his casinos and voluntarily give him my money. Begone! Away! -
Why, exactly, am I typing in a cab? Because I hate this part. I hate the trip to the airport, because its the one moment on these journeys where Im not the master of my own course, and inevitably end up snarled in hideous traffic the likes of which loom dark in my worst nightmares. I get . . . claustrophobic. And right now, staring at 8 lanes of traffic being funneled into the toll booths for the bridge, nothing moving, I get . . . unhappy. So I type. But - we just hit an open patch of road, and now were really moving; more later at LaGuardia -
Later. Where were we? Right: cursing Trump to perdition. Id heard of the building, and sighed when I saw the pictures, but you really have to see it to see what a wasted opportunity it is. Its right by the UN, which I visited this morning because I wanted to plot the delivery of the fertiliz - uh, the bagels! Right, the bagels. And the C4 & Chives cream-cheese spread.
Just kidding, of course, but I do wonder what the great UN-fearing cranks would think if they went to the building. (By cranks, I do not include those who regard the institution with suspicion and doubt, and see it primarily as a tool of waste, palaver and incompetence and inefficaciousness. Also useless.) Its a sad place. When you note the small decaying details, you wonder whether the discrediting of an architectural style discredits everything associated with that style. Of course, it doesnt. Answers that! Put it this way - I believe we shape architecture, not the other way around. Yes, yes, we are influenced by our environment, of course, of course, but no building can ever make someone want to live 90 to a room and sleep upside down. I mean: modern architecture wouldnt have been possible if people didnt want the world to look new. Not all of it, and surely not all at once. But some of it. The UN building was, and is, a lovely example of the style. As someone once pointed out, by making the office portion the most notable feature of the building, it enshrined the bureaucracy.
On a Sunday afternoon it feels like the headquarters for a giant soap company that went out of business in the 80s. Odd - in a unipolar world, the UN has power it didnt have before; now as its building looks more irrelevant, the agency has more power.
I like it, really. But in a nostalgic sense; it seems to be the sort of building small blue sports cars roar up to - men in light-grey suits and women in red tight dresses, Leo G. Carroll observing from a distance.
Killed time. Walked. Walked though my feet felt like Id fed them to a meat mincer yesterday. Which I did! They were called MY SHOES. Walked around Tudor City, a gigantic 20s apartment complex built on the edge of the Island - wondered why the east side had almost no windows . . . then recalled the UN was built on an area previously devoted to slaughterhouses. And now the slaughterhouses are gone, and the back blank wall faces with the UN with nothing to say. Heres a perfect example of how the cities grows and changes, how one buildings expression is a reaction to the gesture of a building dead and gone for twenty years.
Now Im in the sky. This flight is equipped with fore and aft screaming children. In the event of sleep, these children will deploy and wake everyone in the plane, the cockpit, passing jets and anyone in the houses 30,000 ft below, even if those people have their stereos turned all the way up and have started up a half dozen jackhammers.
Ah: the child is now screaming with a regularity that suggests one of its limbs is being sawed off. And the child behind me has put on steel-tipped boots and is kicking the back of my chair -
And here the narrative breaks off.
It was not a peaceable flight. The stews might as well have announced this plane is equipped with fore and aft screaming children. In the event of sleep, these children will deploy and wake everyone up. It was one of the worst flights in memory, but it landed, and any landings a good landing.
Right now its Wednesday night. Ive been home since Sunday. The Bleat was written over the weekend, the annual jaunt to NYC. The trip had the same arc - initial quiet satisfaction, great big chest-pounding glee, weariness, then an overwhelming sense of futility and insignificance as I crawl out of town like a rat. I dont know what it is about New York, but after three or four days I always feel puny and absurd. Theres nothing I can ever do thatll impress it. Theres nothing I can ever do that will equal it. New York, she is a lovah ah can nevah forrrgeht. Or forrghive.
Yeah, right. Mostly I just get sick of walking and gawking. But I do wonder how people live there. The people who fascinate me are the ones who know nothing different. I wish I had that perspective. Id love to see New York from a natives eyes, just to take all that gigantic fabulousness for granted.
Plane touched down. Got the baggage, got in the car, hit the highway, cranked up some Man or Astroman? and drove very, very fast. (Id purchased the Man or Astroman based on a poster in the bathroom of Blockheads, the Mexican Diner. Cool stuff, although I dont know what the genre is. Surfcore? Surf-thrash? I have the suspicion that all their albums sound exactly the same, though - and that all of the songs are really the same minor-key psuedo-tuneful bluster. But someone has to do this sort of music, and they seem to be the best men for the job.) Drove home! Parked! Sara was at the door; she let out the dog, who came leaping and prancing down the walk baying hello. Dog by my side, wife at the door waiting to welcome me in -
Fine as New York is, it had nothing to equal that simple tableau.
And beers cheaper here, too.
Listening to Louis Prima - although Id better stop, because its bad music for writing. Good music for drinking and laughing and smoking and winking at cocktail waitresses and giving a grudging, curt nod to the mobster at the head table. This stuff has a Goodfella reputation, but its really High Vegas music, Velvet Age Vegas music, and I love it. What really surprised me in this collection was Primas wife, Keely Smith - pure perfect voice, absolutely self-possessed, and capable of shutting Prima down in the space of a 16th note. The first cut on the album is That Old Black Magic, and if the song had just been sung by Louis, it would be a novelty record; he barks and bays and mugs and hoots. But when she sings, he just flies off the face of the earth, and everything belongs to her. Its really something. And its the sort of chemistry and peculiar mix of low borschty humor and cool sophistication thats completely absent in pop music today. Last night I stumbled upon a video from the new Dr. Dre album. Its a duet with the moron of the moment, Eminem. The point of the song seems to be that Dr. Dre was harder before anyone else, was hard while he was doing other things, is currently hard, and intends to remain hard. Hard is defined as glaring at people, swearing, and writing rhyming couplets about ones ability to be hard.
Yeah, okay, fine, have fun. Be hard. See if I care. Call me if you ever find a melody.
Okay, Ive put on another disc now: Music of Neglected English Composers. The name is not a joke. Neglected for a reason, perhaps? Well, well find out. The disc was done under the supervision of Eno. To be specific: Roger Eno. Ive always felt back for Roger; he could never equal his brothers fame, and he made the mistake early in his career of turning out ambient piano music that was quite similar to his brothers work. But hes very good, actually. Hes the Eno for International Coffee moments, when you dont want to worry whether this is Important Music.
Acch. Most days the blank white page looks like - well, nothing. A void that needs plugging, and it doesnt matter what I plug it with. Some days, and this is one, it resembles a hard sheet of ice, and no matter how many times I crack my head into it, nothings going to happen. The tank is dry at this moment, and theres so much to do - a TV monologue for tomorrow night, a column for Sunday, and a Matchbook Theater tonight. The last one can go, of course; the personal work can always go. The last few nights Ive began to work on a story, and just - stopped. Thought: why? No writing. Not for a while. Go do something else. Go relax.
So I did. Relaxation for me often consists of movies Ive seen before. Last night I watched the X-Files movie. (Again.) My overwhelming emotion was nostalgia, oddly enough; nostalgia for the peculiar cultural nexus that this movie represented. In 98 a variety of strains were intersecting. Distrust of government, Art Bell, Roswell, incipient Millennial fears, and desire by many people between 15 and 47 to have sex with either Mulder or Scully. The movie itself captures none of that. Seen from thedistance of a year and a half, it is a strange artifact; its hard to see what all the commotion was about, even though its a well-done piece of work. But it made me nostalgic for the time when paranoia was hip, and glowing green letters conferred a certain cachet, perhaps because it was the last time my interests intersected with those of popular culture.
That moment will come again. If Dre does a duet with Roger Eno, that is. Neglected English Composers: Keepin it Real.
You down with NEC? Awwwww, you know me.
Enough of this twee chamber music. Back to Louis Prima. May his spirit guide us through this weekend; may we all have a Saturday night sweating and grinning and getting spaghetti sauce all over our nice white shirts. More bread? Please. Parmesan? Of course.