She made you feel privileged with her confidences until you discovered that she revealed the same confidences to half a dozen others almost word for word, diminishing the currency of her words with every new ear she shared.
Phebe’s – a place where anything goes and nothing ever happens.
By the time they came to him they were desperate; if they’d once had a great deal of money they had it no longer; if once they were famous and well-connected their glory days had passed. They were feeding on their memories like starving people devouring their body fat to stay alive.
Summer: No season reminds us so much of our own mortality, but on the other hand, no season is so much redolent of eternity since it seems to offer a prospect of long, languorous, idle afternoons stretching on forever. No season is filled with such possibility, if not promise, of flesh and tenderness. Yet the memory I have of summers is one of relentless heat and emptiness, of cities so deserted that everyone seems to have evacuated because of war or else the knowledge of a good party no one's bothered to tell me about, and in these memories I am virtually drunk in the smell of my own sweat while I wait for something, anything, to happen. But even so, there are moments, sometimes only moments, when there is a stillness like magic, a perfect match between psyche, sea and sky, when the forlornness fades and the urge to do, to change, to work, to effect, surrenders simply to the urge to do nothing at all.
Nice (May, 1999): You had to nail these days down good when you’re staying by the sea; otherwise they’ll slip right out of your fingers. You get hypnotized, done in by languor and the expectation, fully borne out by experience, that tomorrow will be just like today. Even a trip to the store seems like a big thing, an event to be carefully planned and executed. There is no haste, nor need for haste. This is a realm where flesh is sovereign, where sometimes it is enough just to harbor thoughts of acting on it without feeling any compelling urge to do so. In any case, there is always in the air a sense that the sweet monotony of the days will soon be interrupted by a surprising pleasure, and it is the anticipation of that pleasure, however ill-formed its manifestation is in the mind, that gives to these long but all too evanescent days a special happiness that can be found nowhere else. And what astonishment seizes you the moment you wake up one morning to find that it has all dissolved, that the weather has turned and become gray, that the once peopled beaches are empty and that the season is over.
Along the Promenade des Anglais the aged men and women stroll, caught up from time to time in a surge of excitable tourists, daredevil skateboarders, long-distance runners, bicyclists and couples newly in love. Then there are the solitary men who stop periodically and forlornly gaze out to sea and then surreptitiously allow their eyes to rest on the beautiful half-naked women baking in the sun. Not knowing what else to do with their loneliness, which has become an unshakeable burden, they eventually pull themselves together, tear their eyes away and walk on.
At first when you heard all of his stories, you were staggered, you were awed, you didn’t understand how any one person could fit so much stuff into their life. But later you realized that he was only a tourist in his own life, pausing now and again to take a snapshot or send a picture postcard back home. Wish you were here, he would write. But the words were meant for himself.
You can only do things when you can. This sounds obvious, a tautology, but it’s more complicated than that. Because some days you can’t do things, you can try, but it won’t work. There’s an absence of energy, a depletion, a void. No one calls, or else the people who do call are trying to sell you something, are after your money. No one writes. When you go out to a favorite spot, a restaurant, a bar, there is no one there that you know or those who are there are those you don’t want to know. The reverse holds true as well: when you can do something you can do a great deal more. The person you wanted to call but refrained from calling, the person you called but who did not call back, this is the person, on such days when energy is at its ripest, are those you can reach without difficulty. Why? A good question. Why, all things being equal, will no one call all day? Why, when one person calls will two or three people call at the same time? Why, when a bar falls empty at two in the morning, will it suddenly fill up half an hour later even though many of the patrons piling in may never have been to the place before, or rarely come in? Why do people – who don’t have anything in common, who were at the movies, at the theater, at a restaurant, at home – all converge on a single destination at the same time? What is to account for it? Brownian motion? Quantum mechanics? There is an organic quality here, a sense that some larger system is at work governing even these minor demographic phenomena, these migrations that occur simultaneously, the sudden surges of communication, like bursts of electricity, followed by periods, equally inexplicable, where nothing happens, or put it another way, nothing is visible or detectable on the surface. To try to do something when the energy is depleted (or to put it another way: in the process of being restored), is to run the risk of embracing futility. The trouble with accepting such a situation, of simply hunkering down and waiting until the time comes when it is possible to do something, is that it smacks of an Oriental fatalism, of resigning oneself to one’s fate, when the whole culture argues otherwise: that this is a can-do society and that if you persevere and forge ahead you can knock down the barriers, overcome the obstacles, and there is some (but not enough) truth to this proposition, but only over the long term; over the short term, it is necessary to know how to understand the context, the texture, of each day, to know when it is possible to take action (and what kind of action to take, and in what degree), and when it is necessary to hold back, to be patient, to gather one’s strength.
Every Sunday morning, around 8:30, a phone rings in a neighboring apartment. It rings as many as twenty times if no one answers. Five or ten minutes later the same thing. This cycle can continue three or four times or more. Maybe the phone is on automatic redial. But I imagine another scenario: someone is desperate and in despair when there is no answer. But although this goes on Sunday after Sunday, it's impossible for the caller to come to grips with the fact that the person he or she is trying to reach isn't there, probably, given the hour, didn't spend Saturday night at home. Every interval represents hope, possibility, every ring defeat.
This goes on, Sunday after Sunday. Making the phone call establishes a connection even though no one answers, so that really there is no connection. The person on the other end has no power but to let the phone ring over and over again. (Another question: Why doesn't the person being called have an answering machine?) Is this a mother concerned about her daughter, especially early on Sunday morning, because if she'd behaved on Saturday night she should be home, shouldn't she? Allowing the phone to ring for 19, 20 times is like someone shouting to make himself heard even when the individual being addressed doesn't understand the language.
The season was like an undeclared war, not winter but not not-winter, either. For weeks temperatures stayed mild, but the skies were perpetually gray and when there was no rain there was the threat of it. A damp chill seeped into the bones and seemed to inhabit the soul. They were digging up Hudson Street again like kids who couldn’t keep from picking at their scabs. What was the use of what they were doing? There was no way of telling, but each new dismal day would begin with a chorus of drills and the maddening buzz of a saw lopping off blocks of wood. As soon as they started sleep became impossible, but what else to do? Get up, shower, dress? Face the day? The day that lay ahead promised nothing, evoked in him no anticipation, certainly no joy.
April 15, 2004: A magnanimous day, all the more so for arriving after so many days of murk and cold, spring, we believe, we must believe, has finally declared itself, it will be here to stay – no more coyness, no more flirtation with our senses, tempting us with a beautiful day, only to snatch away our expectations with more dreary, wintry days – no, this is a day like a gift, imbued with such glorious light that all ugliness is banished from the world, if only for a time, and all ambiguity too, if only for a time, and everything today is so sharply delineated that there is no doubt where borders lie, where limits lie, if only for a time, and we would be fools if we did not count this day as a blessing, if only for a time.
Bob Baer, the former CIA agent, who was a guest speaker at The New Yorker Festival, says that he’s now become convinced that more information can be gleaned from intercepts and other technical means than through human intelligence, a change in attitude that has been years in the making based on the results he’s seen. He also says that he says the agency always knew when the Soviets were plotting to execute a break-in because all of a sudden several bald Russians would show up in town. The KGB would first secretly install an irradiated panel in the wall in back of a safe they wanted to pilfer. The panel was designed to register the combination once the safe was opened. The men who grew practiced in the technique of opening these safes were being constantly exposed to the radiation which explained why all their hair fell out.
S’s brother, who works for a large accounting firm, secures a tour of the vaults of the Federal Reserve in downtown Manhattan. The vaults are protected by a 50-ton door but one so well constructed that a 100-pound woman could easily open and close it. The gold bars are so heavy that staff members must wear specially protected booties when they’re transporting it from one cell to another (and they do resemble prison cells). If a bar accidentally fell on one’s foot it would crush it. The guide says that countries are not charged to keep their gold at the Fed – it’s done as a courtesy to promote good relations. The Fed’s reputation is of such importance that even at the height of the Iran hostage crisis, the US made no move to seize Iran’s gold reserves and returned the gold when Teheran requested it. There’s about $600 billion worth of gold altogether. In addition to the gold, the Fed keeps on hand over a billion dollars in cash (which sits in a gigantic stack in another cell). This cash is held in reserve in case of an emergency like 9/11 and a run on ATM’s occurs; the Fed would immediately move to resupply the machines to prevent a panic. Until the cash is actually put into circulation, though, it is not counted on the Fed’s books so in effect it does and doesn’t exist. There is also another cell filled with ammunition in case someone should be so foolish as to attempt a robbery. If an incursion did occur the Fed could be locked down within thirty seconds.
Amanda and John, a British couple in their forties, are in New York for a visit. They now live in a village an hour’s commute from London (where John works for an insurance company in The City) and have three children. Twenty years ago, when they were newly married and had little money they backpacked around the world, a journey that took them almost 18 months. On their last leg of the journey they decided to visit Kashmir. They didn’t really have any idea about the troubled conditions in the region. They set out to Srinagar from India on a bus which would take 18 hours to get to its destination. Before they left their guide gave them a password. The man who would greet them on the other end and show them around would know the password. They shouldn’t put themselves in the hands of anyone else. Along the way they observed overturned vehicles, a sight which didn’t inspire much confidence. As far as they could tell, they were the only Westerners on the bus. As they approached the border a young man in a hoodie and jeans appeared on the side of the road and began to run alongside of the bus. He pounded on the door and the bus pulled to a stop. Then he got on board and went up to John and Wendy and asked to see their passports. He acted as if he were their guide. They were taken aback. What were they supposed to do? Wendy asked him for the password. He said that he didn’t have it but his brother was going to give it to him and then his cell phone died. At this point the other passengers in the bus began to surround the man and pummel him. “Don’t go with this man!” they warned the couple, surprising them since up until now none of them had displayed any indication that they knew English. “He is a bad man!” They forced the would-be guide off the bus. Later they found out that several Westerners had been kidnapped by Islamic militants in Kashmir and held for ransom. Some had ended up beheaded. When they arrived at the terminal in Srinagar the real guide came forward to greet them. He knew the password. They rented a houseboat – and these houseboats were very extravagant, some even had chandeliers – but in spite of the extraordinary beauty of Kashmir’s lakes they were unable to enjoy themselves. The tourist hotels were surrounded by sandbags. Snipers were posted on rooftops. They decided to cut their visit short and return to India.
Rachel, an Aussie, writer and expat living near Guadalajara, tells the story of how she ended up in a Bulgarian prison. In the late Sixties she was working in Greece --- she doesn’t say doing what – along with several other young foreigners. It was too much of a hassle to obtain work visas that would allow them to remain in the country for a lengthy period of time. In order to renew their tourists visas, good only for several months, they would have to leave the country for a short period (eight hours would do the trick) so they could renew their visas. This gave them the chance to travel to neighboring countries like Yugoslavia or Italy or France. One day she and a friend – John Law (who later became an actor of some repute) decided to try Bulgaria where they’d never been before. They spent a day or so exploring but then found themselves late at night in a small town. A young Bulgarian man befriended them and asked for a ride. They were anxious to get back and he said that he knew of a shortcut. However, this ‘shortcut’ was taking them through a border zone, a kind of no man’s land. John and Rachel noticed that their new friend was hunkered down in the back seat with a blanket over him. It was obvious that he was hoping to be smuggled over the border. When they reached the border the guards inspected the car and pulled him out. “We never saw him again.” The guards detained John and Rachel who were taken to a prison in a nearby city. They didn’t tell them what would happen to them. The two were separated. Rachel’s clothes and possessions were taken from her and she was given an ugly blue uniform to wear. Then she was locked up in solitary confinement. She was denied every privilege except the right to exercise in a small courtyard once a day for fifteen minutes – no books, no contact with the outside world even with a consular official. Every day she was taken out and interrogated. They refused to believe that she’d been inadvertently caught up in a scheme to smuggle a citizen out of the country. After a week she was placed in a cell with two other women. They were East Germans who’d hoped that they could reach the West easier from Bulgaria than from their own country. It hadn’t worked out that well for them. But one of the girls, having served her sentence, was allowed to go. Before she left Rachel gave her her passport number and asked her to see if she couldn’t find help. She was not optimistic. But a few days later she was told to leave her cell. She assumed she was going to be interrogated again. Instead she entered a room and saw John Law – the first time that they’d been united since their arrest. He was just as bewildered as she was. Her clothes were piled up, all laundered and ironed. They returned their passports and told them they were free to leave. Later Rachel learned that the German girl had gotten in contact with the Australian Embassy which had intervened on their behalf.
Mike, bartender at the Riviera Café in The Village, recalls that one afternoon a man in his mid-seventies came in and ordered a Stella and then demanded another glass because he didn’t like the one that was given him. Eventually he softened up and began to talk – and continued to talk. He said that he had a brother who lived in the neighborhood, but then added that they’d gone their separate ways. He’d become a cop and his brother had joined the Mafia and had become acting head of the Genovese family. Based on the information he’d given him, Mike went online and discovered that most of what he’d said checked out. A man, known as Benny Eggs, who lived in the Village had recently been released from prison after serving several years and was considered by police as the acting head of the Genovese family, just as his customer had claimed. Some time went by. The cop never reappeared. However, there was one couple, both Italian-Americans, who began to drop in fairly often. They’d spent most of their lives in New Jersey but were now looking to buy a place in Manhattan. They were friendly and liked to chat with Mike. One afternoon the talk turned to the mob. Mike had the impression that they detested the Mafia. He told them about his conversation with the cop, repeating the story about his brother. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t remember his name.” The man said, “Would it be Benny Eggs?” “Yeah, that’s it!” Mike said. Suddenly, he says, a pall descended. The couple suddenly shut up. They asked for the check and left. Mike doesn’t think he’ll see them again. He has no idea why they reacted as they did. Maybe Benny Eggs had a relative of theirs killed, I have no idea.”
Suzanne, a film producer who grew up in the Russian Orthodox Church, often frequented a Russian bar in midtown – a place that didn’t bother putting a name over the door. One night she stopped in for a drink after not having been there for several months. She was astonished by the absence of the hookers who used to be a regular and conspicuous presence. She went up to the owner of the bar, “Sasha, what happened to the hookers?” He shrugged. “The biznezmen, their visas ran out,” he said. The only kind of businessmen who came to this bar were members of the Russian Mafia. Suzanne was astonished. “These guys run drugs, underage girls and they can’t forge a visa?” Sasha merely repeated what he said. “Their visas run out.” And when the biznezmen went so did the hookers who catered to them.
During the Cold War many White Russian parishioners shunned the Russian Orthodox Church on East 92nd Street because of rumors that the priests were secret KGB agents and were violating the confessional to pass secrets to the Kremlin. So a wealthy woman started her own church in her own townhouse a block away. It soon attracted a significant following. Today, even with the Cold War over, the two churches remain.
Keith, a playwright and actor, was startled to see a long line in front of a place called Joe’s Sandwiches in the East Village. What was the draw? Someone told him that Joe’s made the most extraordinary sandwiches, but the most delicious of all was made with challah bread, chicken liver and bacon. It was called The Conflicted Jew.
The late curator and art critic Elizabeth Ackerman has noted a distinct difference in the way between how male and female artists make installations in which beds are the dominant feature. For women beds more often than not symbolize abusive relationships, sexual betrayal, sleeplessness, decay and death. She recalls one such installation in which blocks of ice were placed on the bed and left there to melt and another strewn with bell peppers which were left to rot. For men, though, beds were typically symbols of dominance and masculinity. In her experience beds made by men never hint at sexual failure, betrayal or death.