Kind of surprised; I would have thought that this brief roadtrip – out to NY for a day of meetings and back the next morning – would have done it. Would have coaxed the muse out of her hiding place and given me something to write about. There’s certainly kindling enough for it; I can’t think of any city – any place – with which I have such a deeply-ingrained, longstanding love-hate relationship.
You step out into the street, and the energy, the excitement, the promise of untapped adventure are palpable, seductive. You think “Yes, this is where people come to make their dreams happen, like moths to the light. Like moths to the bug-zapper. In the glowing storefront lights, photoshop-sculpted billboard models, rail thin and dripping in diamond junk stare out in vapid, vampiric sexuality. On the street below, a pack of young men, toughed out in their muscle shirts and gang colors stare back – “manning up” to the taunt, but unable to look away. There’s something terrifying in both of their faces, fear, and longing, both sheltered by an impenetrable wall of anger.
And then? Then there are the people who simply live here. You see them more near the edges of the island – The young mother on the E-train, coaxing station names out of her daughter: “Penn shashun!” “Staaaay-shun, darling, staaaaay-shun.” “Shashun!” “Yes, darling.” The young couple walking quiet cobblestones below the Highline, lost in conversation and imaginations of something far away. The late-night clatter of a boy, alone with his skateboard on a darkened Chelsea side street, trying again and again to land that elusive flatland Ollie.
My parents used to walk these streets. Washington Square, The Village. Back before I was born, before my sister was born. Back when they were much younger than I am now. Maybe they were that couple I saw below the High Line? I look up at the storefronts here – they’re more humane: the deli, the diner, the laundromat. I imagine back, over fifty years ago. Did they stop here? What about here? It was 1960 – the Village was young and hip. She was the exotic dark-eyed beauty hanging on the arm of the handsome young doctor from Brooklyn.
I think about Hemingway, about Hotel Montoya, and Burguete – about places he went, and whose spirit he captured and distilled into words on a page, such that others visiting Pamplona, or Paris, or Navarre could see them for the first time, and – in a way – already know them (Quick check of the web reveals that Hostel Burguete is still owned by the same family – they’re happy to book you into room 23 – his favorite – and arrange for a fishing trip like the ones he described in The Sun Also Rises).
For someone like me, who loves (craves?) the sensation of finding human connections – that’s where the magic of writing comes in. It’s like a magic trick, a secret connection, a conversation, not only across space, but across time. It has, when I let myself go, the same impossibility that television, or the telephone must have had to some folks a century ago. He’s talking to you – telling you about the cold water in his boots, the angle of the sun on the wildflowers, and how good it is just to be here, now. Except “here” is half a world away, and “now” is almost a century past.
Being able to see, to stand in the place where someone wrote – that’s doubly magic. In Turkey, looking across the Hellespont with Herodotus in hand, nestled in my Jamesway at the South Pole reading Siple (the first structure erected at the Pole was in fact a Jamesway – wouldn’t be at all surprised if it still survived somewhere around Summer Camp). That sort of thing? It’s as good as a time machine.
Anyhow. So here I am, exploring the streets of Greenwich Village at night. I’m here because tomorrow, November 15th, is my father’s birthday. He would have been 79 tomorrow – it feels impossibly old for a man who I only know from a handful of 40-odd year-old photographs. In this time travel meander I’m trying to conjure – and yes, “conjure” is the right word, he would have been 28. Strange – I can’t imagine him being 28 either.
Tom Wolfe has a great quotation in Bonfire of the Vanities (no, sorry, I never read the book – just came across it out of context):
“Sherman made the terrible discovery that men make about their fathers sooner or later… that the man before him was not an aging father but a boy, a boy much like himself, a boy who grew up and had a child of his own and, as best he could, out of a sense of duty and, perhaps love, adopted a role called Being a Father so that his child would have something mythical and infinitely important: a Protector, who would keep a lid on all the chaotic and catastrophic possibilities of life.”
It’s one of those quotations that hits home – in spite of what I said about fiction, when done well, it’s so often the lie that tells the truth. And so here I was, fifty years later, wandering these streets, trying to get to know this man, this 28 year-old with a Brooklyn accent and mysteriously-familiar smile. Ten years later, before I was really old enough to know him, to know anything, really, he was gone.
I’d gone out to the cemetery my last trip to NY, to visit the plot where he and his parents were buried. The gravestone needed some, uh, correction (long story – due to a family feud, the stone listed him “Beloved son and father” – no mention of his role as “husband”). We took care of getting a new stone cut (“Beloved father, brother, husband and son” – didn’t want to piss off anyone this time around) and put in place over the phone. The stone carver sent us pictures, but none of us have been back to see it in person.
I thought about going out to see the new stone, as a way of commemorating his birthday, celebrating a too-short life that I never knew well enough. But I didn’t want Plot 57, Section 15 of the New Mt Carmel Cemetery to be how I remembered him. I don’t think it’s a place he would have spent much time by choice. I thought that he’d rather be here, now, in the cool dark of a Greenwich Village evening, noise spilling out onto the street from the cafes while young couples walked by, oblivious to everything else.