Notes from Real Life

Postcards, excerpts from letters, random notes, &c.


Mecca

(From a letter...)

Cedar Park, Tex.

I have seen my Mecca, and it is the Austin Whole Foods -- the National Gallery, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Opera of grocery stores. Kelly and Cynthia took me there last night, after a good Mexican dinner. It's a year old, and occupies a vast space beneath the Whole Foods headquarters tower, and it seems to go on forever. The produce starts out beyond the front doors, as if spilling into the entryway (food as architectural element), and then inside you find that there are a half dozen kinds of bananas occupying their own 20-foot-long display, and a whole wall of mushrooms, and fruits you've never heard of (a winter melon so misshapen that it might have been conceived by Edward Gorey), and the season's first artichokes in from California -- and that's all before you get out of the produce section. Working your way back, you come to cases of seafood, and house-smoked seafood, and a couple of counters where you can sit to feast on whatever the seafood-dinner specials are, with a glass of wine beside your plate and shoppers flowing around you like ocean currents. Beyond that stretch the meat counters -- the numberless kinds of sausages, the steaks trimmed into the shapes of Valentines hearts, the perfect tenderloins (each with a little sign suggestive of the former animal's happy life). Side aisles lead to cliffs of wine, to a chilly streetscape of beers, and past them the department of nuts (raw, roasted, salted, candied, herbed in combinations you never imagined -- and all available to be ground before your eyes into nut butters). Next came bins of rices, and a machine for milling grain into flour at your command, and then the frozen entrees, temptingly described. Treats from a whole geography's worth of places ornamented the ends of aisles we never even went down, since by then I was so obviously dazed. Then the bread shelves, the chocolate counters, the cheeses (we bought a Tomme de Savoie, a Sottocenere with bits of truffle, a manchego coated with rosemary, and a slice of a kind of torte of brie layered with some kind of lavender jam, all the be tasted with sliced baguette). Now all I need to do is quit my job and move here.

11 February 2006


Better than sex

(From a letter...)

Charleston, S.C.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when no self-respecting college president or PR person would have dreamed of letting a Chronicle reporter go to dinner in a strange town by himself. At the very least, an underling was assigned to entertain him; classier institutions -- the University of Texas at Austin comes to mind, during Shirley Bird Perry's reign as vice-president for development -- assembled whole parties of vice presidents to amuse the reporter in the dining rooms of private clubs. (Shirley Bird Perry once sent me to dinner with an associate vice president and the author James Michener, who turned out not to be much of a conversationalist, at least not that night. But it was the thought that counted.) Now, alas, almost no one thinks twice about being hospitable to an out-of-town visitor. Even here, in a town that imagines itself as the embodiment of everything that's good about the south, the president who spent much of the day telling me how great his college is did nothing more than mention a restaurant in passing as he dropped me off at my hotel. I should eat, he said, at a place called Slightly North of Broad, or SNOB.

I had a meal so good it was better than sex.

It started with a salad of caramelized pear, crumbled blue cheese, mixed greens, and salted pistachios. Flat-out delicious. The pear -- I had to ask about this -- had been poached, and then just before it was served it was sprinkled with raw sugar and honey and assaulted with a hand-held kitchen torch. A much-needed glass of zinfandel countered the sweetness of the fruit and the density of the cheese. Next came delectable sweetbreads and sauteed shittake mushrooms, accompanied by velvety pearl onions and a red-wine reduction; a gaunt kitchen runner put down a smaller plate beside the first and mumbled something about how "The chef thought you might also like to try . . ." But I couldn't hear what the item was -- some wedge of meat accompanied by shredded beets. I quizzed Otto, my bespectacled server, who relayed the question back into the kitchen: Tongue. It was very nearly as good as the sweetbreads, but not quite. The sweetbreads had the advantage of the mushrooms and the reduction.

I was sitting at what the hostess called the "Chef's table," which in fact was a low bar facing the kitchen and covered with foodie magazines. I had a limited view of the grill station and one range. I had long since ordered a second glass of wine and given up reading about bin Laden's high school in The New Yorker. This was a meal that deserved to be savored, exalted in. The shame of it, I thought, was that I had no one to share it with (although Otto was quite solicitous). On the other hand, dining alone meant I had no distractions. I could enjoy every mouthful. I ate as slowly as I could, watching the grill cook and trying to figure out which menu items he was working on. I enjoyed myself so much I felt guilty.

I didn't need desert. Didn't want it. But there was a cheese plate, listed among the appetizers, and it had a Morbier. I instructed Otto to bring the smallest possible plate of cheeses and a decaf. Keeping company with the Morbier were a sheep's-milk cheese called Prince of Something-or-other and a goat cheese that Otto said was called Buche du Poitous. At $53.65, plus a very generous tip, it was cheaper than sex, too, or at least cheaper than paying for it. (Not that I would know.) I had to take a long stroll afterwards, down Meeting Street as far as the Battery. It's a warm, wet evening here, with a breeze that makes Christmas lights dance in the fronds of the palmettos. I looked through garden gates at splashing fountains lit from within, and I glanced in window after antebellum window, at parlors and dining rooms dimly illuminated by chandeliers, at reception halls with broad black-and-white tiles in the floors and chairs I'm sure no one ever sits in. If I hadn't been alone, would I have had such a good time? It's a tough question.

8 December 2005


D Train

(From a letter...)

The downtown D train, express below 125th Street, is swaying gently on welded rail, lulling a carload of handsome Spanish boys to sleep. It's early afternoon, and their heads are drooping one by one into their black North Face coats. The one sitting next to me -- the one with such lovely eyelashes -- gives up changing playlists on his iPod and puts his head back against the wall, eyes closed, so that I can steal a few glances at his lips. The one across the car -- the one with the scar all the way down the right side of his face -- rests his left hand on his thigh and nods off, so that I can study the length and thickness and appeal of his fingers (while noting of course the wedding band). Does the scar make him less handsome, or more? I ponder. Out of the darkness the white tile of the 96th Street station flashes in the windows. The beautiful black teenaged girl over there is looking demurely off into the middle distance. One of the two women to my left is reading Bible stories from a booklet that looks like it came from a supermarket checkout. The other is eating a salad out of a clear plastic container -- chickpeas, onions, cottage cheese -- along with crackers and a soda. Not quite the dining car on the old Southern Crescent, perhaps, but what is anymore? New Yorkers live rich, full lives on their subway trains. Or maybe they just live rich, full lives, period.

1 March 2004


Descent into Queens

(Postcard to Marcus)

Sure, the western states have those spectacular canyons and breathtaking mountain ranges, and the prairie offers that stunning expanse of sky, but for my money nothing rivals a nighttime approach to Manhattan on a train from New England. A clatter of wheels on an unseen lift bridge in the dark announces, more or less, the northern limits of the city, and the train begins a long climb out of a district of warehouses and bus-storage lots. The towers of midtown appear, lights winking in the cold, and as the cars pull east onto the mighty span of the Hell Gate Bridge you see lights outlining bridges down the Hudson -- a suspension bridge first, which I don't know the name of, and then the Queensboro's angled cantilever spans. Beyond them the city reveals itself as a lovely and enticing three-dimensional Christmas garden, topped this time of year by the red and green lights trained on the Empire State Building's dirigible mast. Then the gradual descent into Queens, its rooftops and streetlights and stoops rising to meet the train, then its facades flashing past, its streets framing here and there a glimpse of the Chrysler Building's crown. Finally the train yards that serve Penn Station, and the tunnel beneath the East River, and the ancient steelwork under New York itself, posts wrapped with electric conduits, beams covered with rivets like barnacles.

28 December 2004


Flip Wilson

(Postcard to Marcus)

"No smoochin!" I insisted. "You don't know me that well!" I pulled my hand back from the woman's lips and the imploring eyes above them. "You remember Flip Wilson?" I asked, looking down at her. She was sitting in a wheelchair just outside the Safeway, wrapped in an afghan and with thin white socks that didn't even reach her ankles. It was almost 10 on a chilly, quiet Monday night, and I had just given her $2. First she had taken my hand to shake it, then she pressed it to her lips.

"Flip Wilson? Oh sure," she said, grinning and looking away almost coquettishly. "Geraldine! He still alive, Flip Wilson?"

"I think he died a couple of years ago."

"What'd he have?" I noticed she didn't make eye contact when she spoke, but she did smile a lot. "Dunno," I said. I think it might have been AIDS, but I'm not really sure.

For you youngsters, "You don't know me that well!" was a signature line of Geraldine, a drag character the black comic Flip Wilson brought to network television about 1971 or 72. "Don't you touch me! Don't you EVER touch me!" Geraldine admonished, time and time again. "You don't know that well!" Which is how I react to people who have asked me for money and then want some kind of physical contact.

Still, the woman had a great smile. We talked for a couple of minutes about Flip Wilson and Rowan & Martin's Laugh In and Lily Tomlin and Goldie Hawn -- the seminal television comedies of my teenage years. She was clearly watching TV back then, which made me wonder how life had brought her from that long-ago Sony Trinitron to this cold patch of sidewalk in the fluorescent glare of the Safeway entry in Adams Morgan. I stood there -- helmeted, holding two bags of groceries, with my red light blinking relentless warnings on the back of my courier bag -- and I was thinking, But if my life fell apart the way hers has, could I ask strangers for help? I can't even ask for directions. What would it be like to live her life for even a week? I suppose I would learn a lot.

It was fun talking with her. She laughed often, as though we were friends trading tales at a loud cocktail party. I don't usually give money to to people on the street, but I felt good about having given $2 to her. In fact, I felt great. After I had headed over to unlock my bike, I saw a couple of other people pass her by without acknowledging her. I wanted to stop them and say, Go back! Spend a couple minutes talking to her! It'll make your night!

15 December 2004


The last of the berries

(Thanksgiving postcard to Marcus)

Thanksgiving day was windy and wet -- gray skies cheerless, leaves slick on sidewalks and streets, a chill descending on the city after a morning in the 50s. In the middle of the afternoon I made a quick trip home from Eric's, where we were in the midst of our second day of cooking and had run out of mixing bowls, canola oil, and butter. As I was walking back down to the car, my arms full, I noticed that the birds had just about cleaned the last berries off the tree outside my window -- an admirable and prolific tree that sets its fruit just as its leaves are turning. The bare branches were silhouetted against the shifting clouds. A few birds were picking at the last berries, though I could not guess whether they knew those berries represented the end of their season of plenty, which had begun so long ago when the tree burst into bloom in the spring, and which had continued through the birds' extraordinary feast of cicadas, and then through a summer pleasant with rains and sunshine in good proportion. For us, of course, it was a day of merriment and extravagance -- sweet-potato vichyssoise with creme fraiche, rockfish stuffed with crab imperial, mashed potatoes and gravy, apple-and-tofu-sausage stuffing, pies galore. But for the birds, it was a windy, wet, afternoon on which they ate the last of the berries. The squirrels, sitting up in the middle of the lawn or chattering under the knotty wisteria branches at the bottom of the side stairs, at least have the means to stock nuts away for the winter. The birds have nothing to depend on but nature's mercy, such as it is.

28 November 2004


The City Emptied

(Election-eve postcard to Marcus)

Biking to the office in the early afternoon I found the streets deserted. No cars were double-parked on Columbia Road, no drivers jockeyed for position pulling away from the light at 18th Street, and I sailed right across Dupont Circle without even having to slow down. Walking to L Street to have dinner with my friend Mary, the city was eerily still. A few people could be seen eating at the window tables of restaurants that were otherwise empty, and at one bar some die-hard after-work drinkers gathered around sidewalk tables, but mostly it felt like the day before Thanksgiving. And just now, biking home as the 11 o'clock news carried the final tracking-poll numbers to America's dens and master suites, the streets were so silent that all I could hear was the hum of my tires on the pavement. I suppose the lawyers have all decamped to prepare lawsuits in the swing states, and the lobbyists to twist a few final arms where they matter most, and the young to hound reluctant Ohioans and Pennsylvanians and West Virginians and drive them to their polling places tomorrow (my friend Eric left yesterday for Akron in a rented car, although he has no money to speak of). Me, I'll vote in the late morning and then kill time till election copy comes in to edit -- I'm told I won't have to stay past 4 a.m. no matter what.

But tonight all we can do is wait. It's a gentle, breathless, lonely evening here among the monuments and boulevards of the capital, with the temperature hovering around 60 and the streetlights shining peacably on yellow leaves hanging overhead and rustling underfoot and floating on the surfaces of reflecting pools and fountain basins. No traffic, no sirens, no auguries or omens. It is as quiet as though it were snowing.

1 November 2004


Moon-gate

(Postcard to Marcus)

"Come-come," twitters the guide. "Watch your step coming through the door."

A dozen of us are on an impatient tour of Doris Duke's greenhouses, eleven spectacular rooms of plants and flowers coaxed and pruned into fantasies -- full-size, walk-through dreams under glass. The Italian room is first, with plants thick around the bases of sculptures -- goddesses and graces, all seemingly in the process of covering their breasts. Then a room wondrous with orchids of every size and description, growing out of niches in rocks and dangling from branches of trees.

But no lingering. "Come-come. Watch your step." A French garden, where ankle-high boxwood hedges corral mums into hearts and fleurs-de-lis and a stone lion's head growls a gurgling stream of water into a pool. "Come-come. We're going back across the channel," the guide calls over her shoulder. "Watch your step."

England is represented by topiary -- an elephant, a dolphin, a seal balancing a ball on its nose -- and by herbs planted not in mazes but knots. Michelle is chastised for leaning down and manipulating the mouthlike bloom of a snapdragon while casting her voice as the flower's: "Alex! Hey, Alex! Look at me! I'm a talking flower!"

"Come-come. Please do not touch the plants, miss. If everyone touched the plants ... " Michelle jumps back from the snapdragon, blushing. Alex and I look at each other and grin. I am thinking, How lucky am I here to be here with two new friends? This laughing girl, this grinning guy, this seal balancing a ball on its nose, and me so happy. "Come-come," the guide chirps. No time for reveries.

We wind single-file among cacti and succulents in the desert room. Alex and Michelle and I bring up the rear, consulting each other with silent glances and smiles as the guide fields questions about cactus flowers from the others on the tour. Then the lovely Chinese room, with a stone bridge arching over a pond of carp and plants overgrowing the entrance to an infinite grotto.

"Come-come, come-come," sings the guide, already at the far side of the room. "Watch your step on the stairs. Here is our moon-gate. Now legend says that if you make a wish while walking through it, whatever you wish for will come true."

The moon-gate. There are more rooms beyond -- the Japanese room, the rainforest room, the Islamic room -- but I will hardly notice them, caught up as I am wishing for the wish I do not make going through the moon-gate. It's a wish I know I shouldn't be thinking of, a dream that ought to be hidden away in the dark beneath a rock, and there forgotten forever, because the man has a wife and a family and they are happy together. I walk through the moon-gate with downcast eyes, willing myself to wish nothing, but somehow still wishing I could wish for what I really want. "Come-come," hurries the guide. I watch my step without being told.

3 October 2004


15-Minute Report

(Postcard to Marcus)

Ride to lunch at Bistrot du Coin. Perfect day -- sunny, warm, clear. Whole front of restaurant opened to the street -- tables separated from sidewalk by row of planters. Arrive early, get table with good view of locked bike, wait for novelist friend to come loping up Connecticut Avenue, disguised as usual, this time by floppy hat pulled down over head (same novelist described in another writer's book of essays as "swaddled like an Arab" on the beach at Fire Island -- blanking which writer -- Ethan Mordden?) Order mussels in curried cream sauce. Novelist orders open-face sandwich. Handsome waiter with shaved head, meaning to ask whether novelist wants half sandwich or whole, holds hands first six inches apart, then ten, then six, then ten. I have a filthy, filthy mind. So does novelist. Waiter unreadable. Mussels are delicious -- worth the trouble of opening. Slices of baguette come in handy for soaking up curried cream sauce. Novelist keeps up barrage of questions intended to prevent me from asking any myself. Does volunteer that a friend's new novel is getting great reviews, deservedly, and that this is making novelist sick with envy. Says he has been printing out chunks of writing and thinking how to assemble them into ms. Leaving restaurant we grouse about House of Representatives' insane vote to rescind all DC gun laws. Also about new $440-million baseball stadium to be paid for by tax on businesses in DC -- which of course will pass cost to DC consumers. Which is us.

30 September 2004


Five-heron ride

(Postcard to Marcus)

Sunday's was a five-heron bike ride, not unusual along the canal. One of the science writers at work claims there's a heronry -- I just looked it up and it really is a word: "A place where herons nest and breed" -- somewhere beside the river, which could account for their abundance. Even so, the great blue herons are among the more exotic-seeming residents of the area, standing almost perfectly still in the water, necks extended one way or another as they watch for the glint or shadow of a passing fish. From a distance, they seem beautiful, like figures painted with a few strokes on an ancient Japanese scroll. But if you're closer, they can look pretty ragged, with matted, dirty old feathers drooping down their necks and the general demeanor of someone who's about to ask you for a dollar to get somet'n a eat. And if you get too close, they take to the air in what seems, because of their size, to be slow motion -- the huge wings take so long to unfurl, the flapping is at first so clumsy and so loud, and the skimming flight just above the water goes on so long, in such a prehistoric cadence, until finally the heron rises through a break in the trees and vanishes.

28 September 2004


Some days

(Postcard to Marcus)

... Living alone means that some days I end up only speaking to salespeople. Most of these days are Saturdays -- I am, apparently, the kind of guy people don't mind spending time with on weekdays or Sundays, but Saturdays I don't quite make the cut for. Saturday nights especially. Which is handy, in a way, because the laundry room's never crowded on Saturday night. Today I talked to a guy at the farmer's market at 18th and Columbia -- it's just about the last week for basil and tomatoes, because the farm in question is out in West Virginia -- and to the clerk at the natural-foods store. I talked to two box-office people, at Arena and Studio, because I was moving tickets to different days. I called out "Bike on your left!" a number of times while I was out riding -- and avoiding things I really should have been doing, like embarrassingly old expense accounts for work. I was curt with a barely-competent woman at the coffee store who messed up my order -- one bag is two-thirds French and one-third Peruvian, the other bag is the opposite, but they're supposed to be 50-50. I talked to Michael, at Pearson's, from whom I bought a mixed case of reds. I had a great time chatting with a saleskid at Hudson Trail Outfitters who is probably still in high school, and from whom I bought a new sleeping bag to take on next weekend's poetry excursion. He was cute and friendly and smart and subversive and all in all the highlight of the day, better even than the bike ride. I said about six words to the check-out clerk at the Safeway who rang up my three bags of essentials (grapefruit juice, King Arthur bread flour, and my newest discovery -- an "Irish Cheese," wrapped in wax paper, that's so good the Safeway has no business carrying it). I had a brief conversation with a tedious neighbor on my way to do laundry. Then I fixed dinner. Yeah, well. . . .

25 September 2004


Less is more

(Postcard to Marcus)

"Less is more" -- again and again, Brad and I forget the genius of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. He was referring to making buildings, of course, not to making pizzas, but the point is pretty much the same: If you put a lot of ornaments on a building, you can't appreciate its essential nature any better than you can taste the real flavors of dough and cheese if you mound too many ingredients on a pizza. Of the 16 pizzas we made last night for the staff of Brad's paper, the best was the simplest -- dough smeared with olive oil and garlic, then topped with sparse helpings of fresh mozzarella and parmesan and a quick toss of course-grained French sea salt. Whereas the pizza with pesto and lobster and shrimp and pine nuts was a muddle, at least by comparison. The ingredients were all splendid, but together they overwhelmed the dough, which couldn't rise as much as it could with the garlic-cheese combination. What's a little distressing is that Brad and I have been over this time and again, as we've worked on our pizza technique: "Less is more" is what we think of as The Lesson of Two Amys, a fine pizza place off Wisconsin Avenue in Cleveland Park. While we're waiting for a table, we watch the guys spreading just a tablespoon or two of sauce, then adding a smattering of veggies or meat and then a sprinkling of cheese, and we are invariably amazed by how little of everything they use. (Okay, to be truthful I'm also amazed by how cute their pizza guys are, with such angelic faces and such beautiful eyelashes, but at least Brad's paying attention to the process). We should just recite the Mies line as a mantra while we cooking: Lessismorelessismorelessismore.

And if you're wondering, yes, it takes a long time to do 16 pizzas in a home oven. Almost two hours. And, yes, the heat does make Brad cranky. And yes, Emily's five-year-old Owen did help repeatedly with the dough, flattening the puffed-up balls with well-floured hands and then making flowery hand-prints on me and Brad, both of us having worn black t-shirts. And yes, we made a big mess in the hostess's kitchen. We cleaned up afterwards, but the fact of the matter is that she's going to have motes of flour and granules of cornmeal loose in the house for weeks, or maybe months.

24 September 2004


Bike commuter ballet

(Postcard to Marcus)

After you've been at it a while, biking becomes a kind of choreography, with its own stylized movements and motions, its own rituals, and of course its own outfits and funny shoes. I was thinking about this as I was riding home an hour ago, through a perfect city evening of soft, cool air and the kind of pensive, appealing pedestrians who are out around Dupont Circle at 9:30 to enjoy a smoke or walk the dog. I realized that hopping on the bike in the garage at the office, and hopping off at the top of the ramp to edge the bike around the tight corner that leads to the small side door, and then climbing back on, checking the helmet, adjusting the bag on my back -- these are all things I do without thinking, the way dancers know their roles in their limbs rather than in their heads. Clicking out of the pedals if I have to stop, looking over my shoulder before changing lanes, scraping my cleats on the pavement as I slam to an angry halt behind cars double-parked in front of restaurants on 18th Street, swinging my right leg over the frame as I drift up to the side door of my building -- all this is a kabuki of my own making, enacted under my mask-like helmet. Indeed, biking gives me a second identity, one that borrows a little from the hard coolness of couriers and adds a certain physical grace that I only have on a bike, blended with the anonymity of the helmet and, in daylight, the dark Oakleys. It's an interesting change -- it's easy to be confident on a bike, to ride with an assurance that's harder to find when you're just walking. The exercise is great, of course, and the fact of getting from point A to point B is often useful, but it's the choreography that brings me back to biking day after day, year after year . . .

22 September 2004


Load limits

(Postcard to Marcus)

The trick is to look for load-limit signs -- 10 tons or below and you could find a very interesting bridge, although of course you could also find a culvert duller than a year-old razor blade. I am forever peering off highways and byways, in case a load-limit sign half hidden at an intersection heralds a span I should visit. But in the case of yesterday's bridge, I had passed the intersection a dozen times without ever spotting the sign -- it was 50 yards along the side road, by a sharp left that took me down through the trees until a tidy valley opened up before me. I passed right through the middle of a farm -- house on the left, barn on the right, just a few feet from the road -- and then the pavement ran out and the road was ribbon of dark gravel, perhaps with a few memories of macadam here and there. Another turn or two and the bridge appeared, tall and skinny, covered with rust. The GTI rumbled across the wooden planks, and as it did I could hear tie-bars rattling against each other. Naturally I pulled off on the far side and fished the camera out of the trunk.

It was as sweet a picture as you could hope for: an old bridge in a quiet green valley, silos in the distance, trees arching overhead, late-summer flowers in thick clumps beside the stone piers. The river, the Casselman, was running swift and muddy beneath. The sky was a rich blue. An ornate builder's plate mounted above the end of the bridge answered the basic questions: "1900 Walker Brothers Contractors Charlestown, WVA." I took pictures from every angle practical, considering the sun and the topography, and as I was hunched over to get a shot from the undergrowth covering a pier wing on the far side of the bridge, I realized that voices had replaced the yapping of dogs in the distance.

A few minutes later a couple of pedestrians appeared on a dirt road running into the dense growth alongside the river. When they were reasonably close I called out "How ya doin'?" and praised their bridge. They came over and seemed friendly -- a guy in his 60s with a fake larynx strapped to his throat and his shirtfront stained by food where the fabric stretched over his ample stomach, an older woman with a distracting number of hairs on her chin and something wrong with her left eye that made it seem pink and scaley. They mentioned the missing bridge at the other end of Moser Road, an 1894 span the county highway department demolished last year, rather than repair it after an overweight truck caused something to snap. (If the county weren't spending all its money on bike trails, the woman complained, it could have afforded to fix the bridge.) They mentioned the flooding, and how it wasn't as bad as other years', and how someone named Flo whom the woman knows up in some other town said this or that about Ivan, and how in a previous hurricane the whole side got tore off that barn there, and how once in a storm a tornado formed around the man's garden pavilion with him still in the middle of it, and how just last week a guy up in a bucket truck repairing a wind turbine right on that ridge got broken in two when the turbine started up and caught a cable and lifted him clear out of the bucket, and how some people the woman had talked to said right away that the family wouldn't ever want for money again, but how the woman thought someone's life was a lot more important than the money, although she agreed it would be a lot.

So much for my pastoral afternoon. When they walked on across the bridge, the Casselman and its little valley seemed no more appealing than the intersection of First and Florida, which I learned way too much about the last time I had jury duty. Not even really wonderful barn just over the next hill cheered me. If you can't cling to at least a handful of Romantic notions about a lost America, what hope can you have for the country at all? There are days, I have to tell you, when I am intensely grateful that I won't ever face a decision about whether to bring a child into a world like this one -- I don't think I could do it.

20 September 2004


Report suspicious activity!

(Postcard to Marcus)

1. A car I passed on my way here to the Baltimore airport had a flowerholder attached to the dashboard, with a daisy in it. I suspect the driver, a woman, of being soft on everything. Plus, it was a German car.

2. An SUV that passed me had a "Jesus Is Lord" bumper sticker. I suspect the driver of intolerance. Also, of speeding.

3. Lots of cars I saw in Vermont had stickers in the shapes of yellow ribbons. These were emblazoned with the words "Support Our Troops." I suspect the drivers of watching Fox News uncritically.

4. An article in this morning's Post says Bush is pulling ahead in the polls. I suspect he'll win. I also suspect that he and his minions have lied to us every day of the past four years (Christmasses possibly excepted).

5. Many people here at the airport are overweight. Many of the items for sale in the shops are tacky. Many of the children are poorly behaved. Many women are wearing jeans too tight for people as heavy as they are. I suspect the country's going to hell in a handbasket.

11 September 2004


Where the streets have no name

(Postcard to Marcus)

[Burlington, Vt.]

That would be the Pet Shop Boys version of "Where the Streets Have No Name," currently wending its way though the little white wire from my PowerBook to my ears. I'm in the same Borders I was in last night, which is on a street that does in fact have a name -- Church Street -- but it's been raining here all day and now that it's dark out the whole city feels nameless, as though it were made up just of shadows and the steady rain and the glare of streetlights reflected off puddles and wet asphalt. I shouldn't complain, really, considering that I got to spend the whole day talking to people about handmade cheeses, several of which my job compelled me to taste at lunch. And that was just the appetizer course -- a delicious grilled-cheese sandwich with tomato and basil followed. But now I have to figure out what to have for dinner, and where to have it in a city of hatted and umbrella'd figures hunched over against the rain. Dinner is never my favorite thing to do when I'm out of town, because eating alone in restaurants is . . . well, it's eating alone in restaurants. (I don't talk to strangers without a darn good excuse.)

I don't have much more to say other than that I woke up way early -- lately this happens often when I'm on the road, but this morning the rain helped -- and I lay in bed at the utterly bland Clarion Hotel resenting its aubergine print wallpaper, and its limited cable choices, and its queen bed with visible depressions on either side. Beds, I started thinking, must retain a physical memory of everyone who has slept in them -- the particular distribution of weight someone brings must impress the molecules of mattress and springs in certain signature ways, so that each bed almost imperceptibly becomes unique. You could even map this uniqueness mathematically by accumulating the shapes and weights of successive sleepers -- probably someone at Homeland Security is working on this right now, so Mr. Ridge and Mr. Ashcroft will be able to keep better tabs on who sleeps where. It was a big kind of thought to be having at 5:30 am -- too big, really. Eventually I got to worrying just about whether I had brought the right shoes for sloshing around in the rain.

8 September 2004


Swain's lock

(Postcard to Marcus.)

All of the lock gates leak. In the canal's heyday -- 1924 was the last year all 184 miles had water -- the gates might have leaked less than they do now, but old photographs show the same jets of water spraying through joints between the heavy planks, the same dribbles and drips and cascades. Water pours over the tops of the gates, too, and even arcs out from between stones in the lock walls. It's fun to watch and even more fun to listen to -- I could sit all day on this bench at the lock's lower end, watching other bikers pass on the gravelly towpath, hearing the falling water, the breeze in the trees, the crickets in the grass, the voices of children playing down by the river's edge. What would it be like, I wonder, to live here, to wake up each morning in the tidy white stone house 20 feet back from the lock? The amazing thing about Swain's Lock is that there are still Swains living in that house, descendants of the last lockkeeper's family. Now that the park service keeps the lock gates padlocked shut, Swains make their living here renting out canoes and kayaks (all marked "Swain" in case they get away in a flood) and running a little ice-cream-and-soda stand. It seems like a charmed life until you listen to the grandmother who just sold me a bottle of water -- the accent is thick and harsh, almost historical, the kind of accent you never hear in downtown D.C. Being a lockkeeper was far from glamourous back in the day, of course -- it was hard, dirty work. The woman who sold me water complained about the heat and about getting old. Probably she doesn't even hear the spraying, splashing water. I noticed she had flowers painted on her fingernails.

29 August 2004


Brief fantasia on August themes

(Letter to Andrew)

Andrew,

So just now I was heating up some of Jason's leftover puttanesca in the microwave and it started sputtering -- the puttanesca, I mean, not the microwave. Sometimes foods do that, make little popping noises while their atoms are being excited by the waves of energy. But tonight I was pretty sure the puttanesca was trying to communicate in Morse code: It had some message about my future that I couldn't interpret, because I was never a Boy Scout and know nothing more than the SOS. What could it have been saying? And why was it the messenger? I mean, if some universal power wanted to get my attention, wouldn't it have been easier to rearrange the magnetic poetry on the refrigerator? Preferably to say something encouraging about getting in touch with the redhead I sat next to on the plane on Saturday?

Meanwhile, there's been a dull-green DeSoto parked on Ontario Road on the far side of Columbia, along the route I sometimes take to work. It's in a short driveway, just like any other neighborhood car, except that it's 50 years old and has a lovely chromework DeSoto nameplate on the trunk. We don't have a whole lot of DeSotos in Adams Morgan lately, I have to tell you, so naturally I'm suspicious of the universal power's motives when one appears. Who drove it here? And why? And what, if anything, does it have to do with the Morse-code message from Jason's puttanesca? Inquiring minds want to know.

Inquiring minds also want to know whether your computer has survived the latest worm. It crawled into the Chron's mail servers sometime last night, apparently, and busied itself sending out e-mail in all of our names. We knew from the messages that bounced back -- not pretty, let me tell you. We all got lots of mail today ("Re: Your details" "Re: That movie" "Re: Approved!"), and most it had to be deleted straight off because it carried clones of the worm.

On the other hand, the weather has been drier this week than last, so even though the temperatures have been about the same, the city has been far more pleasant to walk around in. Perhaps it will still be tolerable when you come back. I'll let you know when it's safe.

-- L.

20 August 2003


Dismemberment Plan
Philadelphia, 26 July 2003

(Postcard)

Well, I guess that's that -- no more standing around a smoke-filled room waiting, hands in pockets, shifting from foot to foot, 20 years older than everyone else in some run-down cavernous space living out its last years as an Indie venue. No more "Dismemberment Plan" on the marquee. No more guest lists at the door, no more getting carded, no more watching Eric and Jason and Travis and Joe come on stage to the screams of hundreds of kids. No more anticipating the oddly thrilling bass line and spectacular rhythms of "Time Bomb," the key change before that great lyric about "F-15s and MIGs" in "Ellen and Ben," the chords that signal the opening of "The City." No more singing along to "You Are Invited." No more watching 20-year-olds pour onto the stage during "Ice of Boston" to serve as Pips, dancing wildly and grinning and yelling out "How's Washington?!" and "Get a life!" at precisely the right moments and then crowding in to hug Travis when the song ends. Last night it was the TLA on South Street here, a former movie theater packed with fans for the Plan's last North American club date -- fans who sang along to at least half the songs, who screamed as loudly as I've ever heard a crowd scream at a club. It was a great show to go out on, two hours of shouted requests and requests thrown up on stage on bras and Starbucks frequent-buyer cards and dollar bills folded into paper airplanes, two hours of watching Eric look like a goof, of thinking for the thousandth time how hot Joe would look drumming shirtless, of figuring out that Jason was actually rolling a cigarette on one of the monitors with his back to the audience during the long stretch of "You Are Invited" where only Travis is singing. I'm going to miss the Plan big-time. There's no question that I love their music -- well, much of their music -- but also I've loved coming to their shows, which have been so unlike any other part of my Shakespeare-Theater-subscriber life. One of the kids dancing onstage during "Ice of Boston" last night was a disheveled 17-year-old who turned out to be the most amazing dancer, an ordinary-looking kid with glasses and a mop of sweaty blond hair who had a move for every lyric and a quartet of his own back-up dancers behind him. He was clearly born to Pip for Indie bands, or at least for this one -- he was crazy, fabulous, delirious. He looked as happy as anyone I've ever seen. I was thinking, yeah, that -- that's what I wish my life had been.

27 July 2003


Spring flood

(Towpath report)

The river is swollen with last week's rain, running dark among fully-grown trees, seeking out high channels it cannot reach any other time of the year. At Little Falls the lower dam creates a fierce surf, the water curling downward in a strong, smooth torrent that rolls beneath crashing breakers and bursts of spray. At the canoe club, a "Closed" sign hangs on a tree by the ferry, floating high above its usual landing as currents eddy and tug. The shallows where Jason and I stretched out in a foot of cool water one broiling day last August (fish nibbling at our wrists and ankles) are running deep and fast now. Above Widewater rangers have lifted the stopgate's heavy timbers into place between the stone walls, ready in case the flood upstream surges over the canal's meager walls. Great Falls itself is a watery apocalypse -- the brown river raging and roaring and frothing, the familiar rocks vanished beneath the fury. Spectators stand awe-struck on the overlook, imagining themselves swept away.

14 April 2003


The poem I am tinkering with

(Postcard)

In the poem I am tinkering with, fitfully, it is the day before the war, the night of the winter's last full moon, and somewhere Darwin is brooding. He's thinking how the machinery of evolution that he identified on a remote island of tortoises and lizards so elegantly prefigures the bombs falling from planes in the night sky, the tanks raising clouds of blowing dust as they race across the desert. How the one imperative of our blind, mindless genes -- Reproduce! -- gave rise both to love and to hate, the former to inspire copulation and insure that the young are cared for, the latter to make the competition for scarce resources easy and palatable (what a simple concept is "them"! -- and how quickly, by evolution's measure, has it given us our conquerers and klansmen, our warmongers and spin-doctors and dictators). He's thinking how torturers and peacemakers alike seek to impress those around them by doing their jobs well, by succeeding, the better to attract mates, to reproduce -- just like soldiers and pilots and poets and songwriters. The designers of bombs seek to impress, and the admirals of navies, and the ambassadors and ministers of state, and the nervous men in tanks and trenches tonight, waiting. He's thinking how some are sure to survive -- the older ones, far from the front lines, whose children are already grown themselves -- and how others are not, the young ones whose abandoned lovers will look up at the moon tonight and wonder, or wail.

19 March 2003


A Day at the Races

(Postcard)

My friend Andy told me a great story last night about flying to Florida to visit his dad over the weekend. Andy got off the plane and his father was waiting outside the security gate. "Great to see ya, man!" his dad said, slapping Andy on the shoulder. "We gotta get to the track."

Seems there was a horse Andy's dad needed to bet on. "I guess that's why I'm the way I am," Andy said, " -- 'cause my father's the most forceful guy I know. He's just unbelievable." Andy's pretty laid back himself, if "laid back" still means anything. What do the kids say now? "Chill"?

Anyhow they drove to the track, and when they got inside Andy's dad excused himself to go upstairs and do some betting, leaving Andy alone to wander. It was early afternoon, and he was hungry because the airline hadn't fed him on the flight from BWI, and he realized he only had a couple of dollars in his pocket. That wouldn't get him much, he knew, but it occurred to him that he could place a $2 bet and maybe win enough to buy himself lunch. He scrutinized the line-up for the next race and recognized the name of a jockey ("You what?" I said while he was telling me this -- I mean, damn, the things you don't know about your friends) and he placed a bet and won. So then he had $8, enough to get something to eat. Eventually his dad reappeared. He hadn't won a cent. He was cranky.

The story has an odd postscript. It turned out the track had a band scheduled to play, Andy said. I didn't know bands played race tracks, but then I've never been. "Does the name Gin Blossoms mean anything to you?" Well, sure, I've heard of the Gin Blossoms. They were big once, right? "Well, they had maybe two good songs," Andy said. And now they're playing race tracks in Florida. I guess they were getting paid enough, but still.

14 March 2003


Wack-a-Mole

(From a letter to David Wilson)

There's nothing like traveling to remind a guy that the people he sees in check-out lines at the P Street Whole Foods do not constitute a scientific sample of Americans. Americans as a whole are fatter, for one thing, and are not as good-looking, and are much more likely to have kids under the age of three. And at least one of those kids is likely to be on every flight you take anywhere, and also is likely to be wailing most of the time. One good-looking young dad a couple of rows up from me has two kids with him, maybe ages three and two -- their faces are popping up and down over the backs of their seats as though they were part of a boardwalk Wack-a-Mole game, except that what they're really doing is playing now-I-see-you with the guy in the row behind them. Behind that guy is a young teacher who's just finished grading a bunch of two-page papers in ballpoint pen on three-ring-binder paper, which she put away in a folder marked "McCauliffe Middle School," and behind her is a short, roundish woman who's traveling with her very handsome college-frat-boy son and with a couple of glossy country-music magazines, in which she's doing find-a-word puzzles. In the row ahead of the Wack-a-Moles, just for good measure, are three punk kids, one with hair dyed the color of bright orange rust. They, at least, would look right at home on P Street.

23 February 2003


Plane geometry

(Postcard)

The Airbus is on its final approach to the Pittsburgh airport, under gray skies, and a light snow has outlined furrows and tracks in every field. The snow reveals how neatly each farmer harvested, how he maneuvered the combine into the corners of the rectangle or parallelogram or whatever shape nature and history have given him. Some fields have tracks going every which way, as though someone has been joyriding. Some fields are perfectly groomed, like raked sand in a Japanese rock garden, though of course the farmer himself wouldn't be able to appreciate his handiwork -- for that, you have to be in the plane.

And Pennsylvania is nothing compared with the broad patchwork of tan fields at the western end of the prairie, where Denver's new airport pokes up out of the flatness. Light tan, medium tan, dark tan. Tan in rectangles veined with dry washes, marked here and there by a tan tree or tan shrubs. Tan in circles defined by the reach of irrigators. Tan in three-quarters circles, like pies someone has eaten two slices out of. Tan outlined with roads as straight as meridians of longitude, tan dotted with little Monopoly-board buildings. Tan so precisely patterned by the combines -- into right angles and zigzags and long diagonal bands, the earth made perfectly geometrical -- that not even the greatest museum could do it justice. And then the jet flies down to meet its shadow, and bus stop for Hertz is all the way on the far side of the terminal, and somehow I miss route 36 to Boulder, and the wonder drains out of the day.

11 December 2002


Surprise!

When The Chronicle finally shut down its aging Atex editorial system, I cleaned out my queue and found the beginnings of three never-completed columns from the mid-1990's, when I wrote a monthly feature called Eastern Standard Time for The Washington Blade. The first is set at Camp Windsor Hill, in Maine.

My mother's new husband does drag.

We found this out -- my brother and I, along with my sister-in-law, my nephews, and G. Hiroshima and John -- during this summer's pilgrimage to the lake in Maine. We were sitting around the living room after dinner one night when the conversation veered toward cross-dressing, as conversations will, and the next thing we knew Jack was describing a tutu he'd worn to work the day of the annual office charity drive. "You'd be surprised how difficult it was finding shoes in my size to go with it," Jack said.

Actually, you wouldn't be surprised at all. Jack is a large man -- not only tall but also, well, stout. He has a beard, too, while we're on the subject.

"We looked all over," Jack added. "I ended up wearing tennis shoes."

"We?" I said, looking at my mother.

"At shortstop, Cal Ripkin," Nathan said to John at the card table. Nathan is four, and until the baseball strike began he was following the Orioles obsessively. Just then he was running through the starting line-up for John.

"Judy?" G. Hiroshima said to my mother. "Is this true? You let your husband go to work in shoes that didn't match his dress?"

My mother said it was.

"I have to point out," I said, "that you never seem to have mentioned any of this before. I talk to you every week, sometimes twice or three times. 'What's new?' I ask. And not once have you ever said, 'Jack and I went shopping for tutus and ballet slippers last night,' or 'Jack went to work in drag today.' " I looked at G. Hiroshima. "What if the neighbors find out?" I said. "Oh, the shame. The poor innocent grandchilden -- "

"At third, Leo Gomez," the innocent and apparently oblivious grandchild said to John.

" -- teased at school by bullies," G. Hiroshima added. " 'His grandmother's husband wears a tutu!' "

"And I sell kisses," Jack said, grinning. "Hershey's or my own. You should see my boss. He comes at me with his contribution like this" -- Jack held an imaginary dollar bill at arm's length, as if it might explode long before the United Way ever got hold of it. "After we were done collecting this year, I changed out of the tutu but I left on one long, dangling earring. We had a meeting right after lunch, and I walked in and sat down like nothing was out of the ordinary. I could tell people were staring. Finally the deputy commissioner came in and looked at me and said, 'Nice, Jack.' I said, 'Why, thank you.'"

"A federal employee, yet," I said. "Wait till Senator Helms finds out."

Posted October 31, 2002


Blinders, Please

The second of the rediscovered but incomplete Eastern Standard Time columns.

I stopped our waiter as he was passing our table. "When you get a chance," I said, nodding toward my dinner companion, "could you bring some blinders for him?"

The waiter grinned. "I see," he said. "A little rubbernecking action?"

"I can't even finish a sentence," I said. "He's like this" -- I looked to the left -- "or he's like this" -- I twisted right. "Apparently half his gym is here."

"So I'm a curious guy," said Tom. "Gotta see who's here, who's having dinner with whom."

"And I thought you were here to have dinner with me," I said.

"Yeah," said the waiter, scowling at Tom. "I mean, geez." He looked back at me. "I'm sure I can find some blinders in the back. Gimme a minute." He grinned again and slipped away.

"You know," said Tom, staring after him, "he goes to my gym, too."

"So I guessed. A shoulder-to-waist ratio like that didn't come from Mom and Dad."

Seventeenth Street, Friday night. In fact, the Friday night after j.-with-a-small-"J" and Selina Dodge and I had gone to see Jeffery at the Source Theater. Reviews would have you believe it's a comedy about a guy so scared of the virus that he decides to give up sex. In reality, though, it's just one more play about the awful difficulties that gorgeous gay men experience when they meet other gorgeous gay men. Call me cynical, but somehow I couldn't identify with all these gorgeous men and their alleged angst. You want real angst? Try being ordinary-looking and walking past Pop Stop after the theater on a warm Thursday night.

All right, maybe I'm being unfair. It was a fine play. The actors just happened to be little more stunning than I am.

The waiter reappeared, without blinders. "What frames are those?" he asked Tom. "They look really good on you."

Tom took his glasses off and squinted down at them. "I don't think there's a model name, only numbers," he said.

"I've been looking for frames for about six months," the waiter said. "May I?"

Tom handed his glasses to the waiter, who put them on. "Are they me?" he asked.

"Absolutely," Tom said.

I said, "I'm sure Tom could reconvene his blue-ribbon frame-selection committee for you. He had four or five of us checking out frames for a week. 'This one? Or this one? Okay. Now -- this one? Or this one?' "

"I'm doing that, too," said the waiter. "I tell them I'm just looking and then I come back the next day with friends." He took a few steps towards a mirrored wall. "What d'ya think?" we heard him ask the next table. "Are they me?"

I wore glasses for years and no one ever asked to try them on. Of course, Tom happens to be one of the cutest guys I know -- that just might have something to do with it.

"You are leaving him your number, aren't you?" I said as we paid the check. "I mean, in case he needs any more help finding frames."

"No."

"Fine," I said. "I'll leave it for you."

"No."

"You complain all week about being single, you hit JR's and Trumpets on Thursday night to make sure you're being seen, you can't sit still in your chair tonight, and I still can't leave your phone number in case a handsome, fun waiter needs a little innocent advice about frames?"

Posted October 31, 2002


Biking with Claude

The third of the never-completed Eastern Standard Time columns.

San Francisco

"So what are you thinking, Lawrence?" Claude asked. "Tell us."

I stared out at the gray Pacific, trying to think of something positive to say. The picnic lunch Claude and Stefan and Michael had packed was by now a picnic dinner, and we were eating it under cloudy skies atop a tall rock on a narrow beach facing the Golden Gate. It was starting to get chilly, and we didn't know whether the tide was going out or coming in; if it was coming in, carrying the bikes back to the trail that led up the cliff was going to be rough. Already my shoes and socks were soaked because a wave had caught me.

Not to mention that I had nearly died flying down the twisting, cliff-clinging park road that brought us here from the Golden Gate Bridge: The tube in the front tire of the bike I'd borrowed from Mark had exploded seconds after I'd heard a noise and stopped to investigate. If I had tried to take one more fast downhill curve and the tube had blown then --

Claude had come to my rescue, working his way back up the long hill to find me walking beside Mark's bike. It had no spare tube, but somehow Claude squeezed one of his fat, mountain-bike tubes into the thin, road-bike tire. Me, I would never even have thought of trying that; Claude not only thought of it but also made it work.

Even so, I was not a happy camper. The tide worried me, and I wasn't sure the tube would last all the way back into the city, and I have trouble appreciating food when I'm worried. Even though he had rescued me I didn't really trust Claude to get me home in one piece. He takes risks I'd never dream of taking -- darting into traffic, speeding down steep hills, carrying his bike across wet, slippery rocks when the evening tide might be coming in -- and sometimes I think he's just insane. "No fear," as the bumper sticker says.

On the other hand, in his fearlessness Claude pushes me to do things I didn't think I could -- ride faster and harder and further, try recipes from Indian cookbooks, ask people I want to have sex with whether they want to have sex with me. I've lived all my life cautiously, so very cautiously. Frankly, it's gotten me nowhere.

And so far today no one was actually dead or even injured. I was exhausted and cranky -- that was all. "What I'm thinking, Claude, is that this is turning into one of those Outward Bound test-your-masculinity things people used to try to talk us into in high school. And I'm thinking that you are the last person I'd have expected to be testing my maculinity. The queerest queer I know, the boy who looks better in fishnet stockings than anyone in San Francisco, the bisexual so out he scares leather daddies and dykes on bikes -- he leads me into a nightmare worse than anything my high-school gym teachers ever dreamt up."

"Awww," Claude said, smiling. "You flatter me." He is awfully cute when he smiles. There's no denying it.

The tide was in fact going out. We found a guy on a road bike who had a spare tube. True, it was late enough that I was missing the Radical Faerie performance Mark wanted to take me to, but if that was the worst thing that happened --

Then, when we were coming down out of the Presidio, I broke the chain on Mark's bike. I have no idea how. It seems funny now, but at the time my first thought was, I can't take any more, I'm calling Delta, I'm taking the red-eye home tonight. "He's not smiling," Michael said, looking at me. Claude just laughed. Michael gave me his bike and climbed up behind Claude; Stefan said he could pull my bike along beside his, no problem. I'd have killed myself and ruined two bikes trying a stunt like that, but Stefan managed with ease.

I was sure they were all crazy, but I was too tired to argue. We left Mark's bike in the hallway at Stefan and Michael's, and I got on the seat of Claude's bike and he rode me back across the city, standing in the pedals. The trip was awkward and occasionally terrifying -- especially when we were crossing the streetcar tracks, of which I am mortally afraid -- but it seemed that taking a cab would violate the spirit of the day. At the foot of Bernal Hill, we dismounted and Claude bought himself two chocolate doughnuts, and we walked up the hillside to the house he and Mark share. He had brought me home safe and sound, if three hours late and without Mark's bike, and I felt sort of sheepish about having been so negative.

Posted October 31, 2002


Juliet's Tomb

(Postcard)

Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead,
An atmosphere of Juliet's tomb
Prepared for all the things to be said, or left unsaid."


-- T. S. Eliot, "Portrait of a Lady"

I have been thinking a lot about tombs. A photographer friend visiting from New York wanted to see Saint-Gaudens's statue for the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Parish Cemetery, and on a cloudy December afternoon we ended up walking through a little valley of mausoleums sunk into hillsides around a still pond there. We peered through rusty gates into the leaf-strewn recesses of the vaults, trying to make out dates on the marble slabs or commenting on old cremation urns lined up on a shelf. We admired round Deco doorways and pointed Gothic arches and low Egyptian lintels, history all a-jumble in this quiet valley of temples of the dead. A few nights later I left a Kalorama dinner party late, walking out into a rainy midnight. I had parked in front of the biggest of the grand old apartment buildings on Connecticut Avenue, the one whose roof is alive with pointy-eared gargoyles waiting to throw stones the size of bowling balls down at passers-by. Through the plate-glass windows I could see the lobby spreading out for what seemed like acres -- acres of carpets and plump couches and side tables, all bathed in soft yellow light, all empty, all perfectly still. Not a soul was anywhere to be seen. I walked on up the hill through the rain. "An atmosphere of Juliet's tomb," I thought, then tried to remember what poem it was from.

December 14, 2001


My Dinner with George

(Postcard)

I was in New York recently, for a story at the Cooper Union, and had at long last the pleasure of meeting my friend George's significant other, Katya. George, who as we know now works for a high-profile wine magazine, brought his new-found expertise to bear on the matter of finding a restaurant, picking a nifty little place in Greenwich Village where I had to chose between cassoulet and confit of duck. George was also good enough to order the wine, so naturally when the waiter uncorked it, he poured a taste into George's glass. George picked up the glass, gave it a single, athletic swirl, took a quick sniff, and pronounced it fine without so much as feigning a taste.

He put the glass down authoritatively, but by then I was looking at Kat and she was looking at me and we were both grinning and George knew he was in trouble. "Is it always like this?" I asked Kat. "I mean ..."

"It didn't smell like paper!" George protested. "As long as it doesn't smell like paper, the wine's fine!"

"It's getting worse," Kat said to me.

"I'm not sure I'd go out with him," I said. "He's cute, but ..."

"I knew it was a mistake," George said. "I knew as soon as I did it that it was a mistake."

I looked at him, then at Kat. She grinned back.

"That's it," he said. "You two are not meeting again."

December 11, 2001


Like Elvis

(Postcard)

My grandmother would not have wanted us to be reverent, not around caskets as appalling as those. The funeral director warned us as he led us down the stairs that the wooden caskets were more expensive than the metal ones -- which, to tell you the truth, was the first time I remember hearing that you could get caskets in metal. I've been lucky, I guess: I've never had to help make funeral arrangements before.

In two downstairs rooms about 15 caskets were arranged, some with half-open lids, some with lids closed. Four of them were wood. One, in dark, polished cherry, looked like an exceptional heavy piece of Victorian dining-room furniture, with squat columns at each corner; all it was missing were thick, tapering legs and lion's-claw feet. Another, in light-colored poplar, had a pleasing kind of Shaker simplicity. But it was the metal caskets that astonished me -- pale-blue and -red 20-gauge steel boxes with polished chrome frills and filigrees shaped like the kind of the ornaments you see on cheesy Western-style leather goods. Curlicues on curlicues, with more curlicues on top of that. Caskets that would make Liberace blush. "Perfect for a Mafia don," I whispered to Mom, turning away from an especially gaudy example. "Who designs these things? What were they thinking?"

"You're terrible!" Mom whispered.

"That's why Nanny liked me. That's why you brought me along."

The catch? The least expensive wooden casket cost a cool $2,000 more than the 20-gauge steel. My stepfather pointed out, somewhat tentatively, that we were talking about a coffin that people would looking at for a total of maybe 45 minutes before lowering it into the ground forever -- and not that many people, either, because my grandmother had outlived all her friends. "I vote for the Shaker one," I said, trying to sound definitive. Mom started to agree, but heard my stepfather clear his throat. "Don't even think about it," I told him. "She'd haunt us. We're talking about a woman who had Stickley furniture, who picked Stieff's most subtle silver pattern. We're not burying her like Elvis." I'd have paid the $2,000 myself if I'd had to, but luckily my grandfather had left my grandmother plenty of money.

My stepfather rolled his eyes slightly, signaling acquiesence. My mother and I both inherited my grandmother's stubbornness, and he knows when not to fight. Mom called the funeral director in from the hall. "The poplar," she said. That's why Nanny liked me.

1 October 2001


What to think

(Postcard)

Still there is the laundry to fold, the bike to wash after last week's ride through mud. It's so hard to know how to act, what to think. I go back and forth. The windows are open and breezes are slipping playfully through the apartment on a cool September morning, but I hear jet fighters overhead. Do socks matter? Why bother cleaning chain-rings and wheels? Yesterday the Sunday papers brought page after page of grief and anger. I gave up reading long before the stories ran out -- I was desperate to think about something else, anything else. Then last night, sipping red wine on the roof with a friend, we found ourselves talking about National and how we miss the lights of ascending planes in the night sky. We talked about flight paths and God and hatred and civil liberties. And this morning I started in reading the newspapers again, for as long as I could. Every day now the Times runs brief stories about the missing, stories that are obits in all but name. Today there are 16 of them, filling page B11. A paragraph at the top of the page says 6,453 people are currently unaccounted for. At 16 a day, it will take a year and a month to write about them all. And we have no choice but to go on.

24 September 2001


Reggiano

(Postcard)

In the Georgetown Safeway I come upon two well-dressed women talking in Italian beside the cheeses. Right by the Reggiano, in fact, which is among the items on my list. One of them is poking at the wedges and wheels and blocks of this and that, looking disgusted, while the other narrates. I don't know Italian, but I can certainly recognize annoyance in her tone of voice. Do they think our Parmesan is inferior? Moldy? Or what? They show no sign of moving, even though I'm standing awkwardly in the middle of the aisle with my cart, peering around them at the cheese. Just as I get ready to elbow my way in, I catch a familiar phrase -- " ... al Price Club." The one woman glances at the other, nods, tosses a wedge of Reggiano back. Now I understand: They're just unhappy about the cost, $15.99 a pound, which I know is high because the same cheese is $11.99 at Vace on Connecticut Avenue. Still, you don't think of sophisticated Italian women patronizing Price Club, the premier suburban retailer of Pampers and family-sized everything. I mean, what is civilization coming to? They wander off. I throw a thick brick of the Parmesan into the cart -- basil and garlic and pine nuts are waiting at home, and it's too late to stop by Vace, and this time of year any ingredient that makes a pesto perfect would be cheap at twice the price.

9 September 2001


Postcard from Iowa City

(Postcard)

The irony is that what I took to read at dinner was a long and typically entertaining Calvin Trillin piece in the September 3 New Yorker about a foodie Web site called chowhound.com. Normally I don't read in restaurants, of course, but if I'm stuck eating in a hotel restaurant I make an exception. If you're a reporter, you know what I mean by "stuck eating in a hotel restaurant" -- you get up at 5:30 to make an early flight, get delayed for no reason whatsoever in Minneapolis, spend all afternoon interviewing someone who's throwing great information at you so fast you can't write half of it down, then check into a mid-range Sheraton at 7:30 Central Time with no dinner plan and no energy for cruising the streets in search of that rare perfect cafe where you'd get great food and wouldn't feel self-conscious eating alone.

I checked the Sheraton restaurant's menu in my room's thick "Guest Services" binder, just to be sure. It looked okay. Not great, but ambitious enough that I figured they might have a half-decent cook in the kitchen. I should have reconsidered when I looked through the glass doors and saw only one person eating, but I was tired and hungry. I ordered a glass of cabernet, a Caesar salad, and the pasta primavera with grilled chicken. I mean, how hard is pasta primavera? Veggies, garlic, a little olive oil, some pasta, a good sprinkling of parmesan -- you could do it with your eyes closed.

But the cook downstairs couldn't. Apparently the kitchen had no garlic (for which the entire hotel should be closed, if you ask me), or anything else that would have added flavor. It did have wax beans, which do not belong in pasta primavera, and chunks of soggy yellow squash, which do not belong in anything. It had sprinkles of something that looked like parmesan but had no taste whatsoever. Not to be undersold, the bar had what the server claimed was a Fetzer Cabernet, although I don't think it was -- it was so bad I didn't finish half of it. And I never leave wine in a glass.

For companionship, I had a persistent housefly -- that and Calvin Trillin's dense paragraphs about various "hyperdelicious" ethnic delicacies to be encountered by someone wandering along, say, the route of the BMT's No. 7 train. "I've always spent a certain amount of time in such wanderings," Trillin writes, "most of it with my mouth full." I knew he would be ashamed of me, eating in a Sheraton restaurant without having even asked anyone what else was around. I felt like a fool.

4 September 2001


Drafting Dan

(Postcard)

Four mountain bikes spread out in a line on the trail through the park -- Kelly, his friend Dan, me, Scott Seymour. It's a beautiful summer morning, sun warm on our skin, a breeze at our backs, and Kelly sets a fast pace, as though we were racing. I pull up close behind Dan, easing into the slipstream he creates, and immediately pedalling is easier. I stay a few feet back, just off to one side, taking advantage of a gaseous chaos I can't see, of a trick of physics that I couldn't possibly crunch the numbers for. It's fun drafting someone like this, but it's also scary -- I can't see around Dan, can't see what's coming at me. Bikers who ride in lines regularly -- racing types, mostly -- call out warnings to each other: "Mud left!" "Gravel up!" But on mountain bikes that always feels kind of precious, like we're pretending we're really as cool as the Lycra-clad racers on their slender, silent machines. Among ourselves we've never really settled when to call out warnings. But it occurs to me, drafting Dan, that I'm putting a lot of faith in him and his skill as a rider -- without his warnings, without him thinking for both of us, I could be toast. Since when does Kelly ride this fast, anyway? "Right behind you," I call forward, knowing Dan wouldn't even be aware of me otherwise, and hoping he's a good man to trust.

24 August 2001


Offspring

(Postcard)

Andres has probably spent a hundred haircuts telling me about his nephews. He's shown me dozens of pictures of them -- two striking teenagers of whom he is clearly proud and on whom he dotes. And never mind about that child the older one fathered. It was her fault, says Andres, taking the role of the fiercely loyal gay uncle -- in fact she was trying to trick his nephew into marrying her. All this I've heard in Andres's somewhat spotty English as he's run the clippers over my head.

So it was a surprise on Monday when he said he had been to visit his son in South Carolina.

"Son?" I said, looking at him, as always, in the mirror. "You have a son?" I was stunned. Then I thought he was kidding. As he hunted among the bottles of gel and mousse for a snapshot -- he always brings snapshots to work -- I was sure he was going to show me a dog.

"Yes," he said, grinning. "I was married." He found the picture, of a slender, dark-haired 15-year-old with a big smile and his arms around the shoulders of two friends. "To a client. She was 10 years older. We had a baby -- I call him Alejandro." I sat with my mouth open. Andres went on with the tale -- her sudden move back to South Carolina with the baby, the swift divorce, her marriage to a man wealthy enough to provide all the finest things for his wife and new son, whom he adopted. "I am so very, very happy for them," Andres said, not especially persuasively. I tried to imagine what it must feel like to see another man, far wealthier, adopt your son. He turned the clipper back on and it buzzed across my scalp and I ran through scenarios -- perhaps Andres was young and naive, perhaps she was offering him not just companionship but also citizenship, perhaps ... well, no matter. It's all water over the dam.

So now he sees Alejandro once a year. Andres and his his ex-wife are friends. The boy knows Andres is gay, Andres told me. "I cut his hair!" he said, grinning. I didn't ask whether the boy knows that Andres is his father -- it's not my business to pry into the arrangements and accommodations others make. We all have to be able to get out of bed and face the day, and I suppose we all do what it takes to make that possible. I tried to imagine a 15-year-old boy telling this whole tale to his friends, but it was hard to picture. He asked the boy, Andres said, what he wants more than anything. Alejandro said, "To have sex with Britney Spears."

22 August 2001


Summer Places

(Postcard)

A gray-haired homeless woman in a black outfit has been taking her vacation this week in the grass beside the bike trail below the Shoreham Hotel. Sometimes she sits with her arms wrapped around her legs, staring down at the grass in front of her feet. Sometimes she wanders, walking backwards and scowling and holding one hand up in front of her, as though warning someone to come no closer. But no one is near.

Farther on, in a shady precinct by the heavy arches of the Dumbarton Bridge, a man has been sleeping out the heat wave just off the trail, his head on his pack, his body on the grass, his feet carefully tucked into the foliage. Perhaps he imagines that keeping his feet among the leaves will make him invisible to us, like the chipmunks and rabbits and deer. No doubt it is cooler and more pleasant there than on the street.

10 August 2001


Weekend in Reedville

(Postcard from Reedville, Va.)

What you don't get, living alone, is much chance to practice your repartee. But here, at a house party for a dozen guests and one antic dog, I am surrounded by clever people who interact with other clever people all the time. The weekend is a feast of words, ideas, punch lines, laughter. I think it's because they all know each other so well -- three of them are in the same band, two of them live in the same house, two of them are sisters. Four couples are in the mix, and four people who went to college together. The jokes come fast and furious -- at breakfast, at dinner, on the dock late at night with the full moon and the last of the wine and the pony bottles of Miller High Life (and with Mathias, Bert, and Eric skinny-dipping in the shallow water, half-drunk, giddy, giggling, splashing). Meanwhile I sit cross-legged and nearly silent by the upturned canoe, just outside the moonlit circle of their wit, so unused to rich conversation that I am intoxicated by it, and crave more.

8 August 2001


Golden Years

(Postcard)

The chilly, quiet locker room. I'm changing from bike gear to work clothes, and from the next room I can hear the radio playing faintly -- David Bowie's "Golden Years," a song from my high-school days. It takes about two seconds to recognize the tune, which is on an album I played relentlessly. (I played all my Bowie albums relentlessly.) As I'm putting on my shoes I think of those who lived in Mozart's time, and Beethoven's -- they had no means of playing anything so often that they remembered every chord for decades after. Oh, those who had pianos, or their own chamber orchestras, could enjoy Mozart periodically, but most people were too poor for that. Now I can play an obscure Janacek string quartet over and over and over, or Bowie's "Young Americans," or Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter, or the Beethoven Triple Concerto. I may well know the Triple Concerto better than Beethoven did. I still have all those high-school Bowie albums, by the way -- vinyl records in aging cardboard sleeves. But it's been years since I've had a turntable. On the other hand, I remember every note -- right now I can't get "Golden Years" out of my head -- so what do I need a turntable for?

2 August 2001


Leftover Rangeley Postcard

(Camp Windsor Hill, Rangeley Lake, Maine)

The grocery list went to town without any of the cooks, and the chicken that came back was so big it would have needed three hours in the oven. You don't serve dinner at 9 when one of the diners is only four ("and a half!" A.J. would be quick to add). In a quick conference on the dock Julie and I decided it was leftovers night. I came back up the hill and began unstuffing the fridge -- two and a half filets, with accompanying home fries; 10 pasta-log sections from Sunday, still in Marcella Hazan's creamy tomato sauce and representing about as many person-hours of work (including lots of unglamorous potwashing); leftover lamb crusted with pesto; a leftover miniature meatloaf; leftover mashed potatoes; leftover salad dressing; leftover homemade pepperoni-and-cheese bread, and three fresh loaves of coffee-bran bread ("coffee brown bread," A.J. called it when he announced that he did like it after all). Julie and I put things in the oven, in the microwave, in the toaster oven, and on the stove. We made a salad out of leftover lettuce, uneaten cherry tomatoes, a lone stalk of broccoli, the last of the baby carrots and the scallions and the grapes. We put out a fresh stick of butter and a bowl of leftover grated parmesan. Then we all sat down to feast. We are not the sort of people who hold hands to give thanks before a meal, but if we were, this one would have been worth an extra clause or two of gratitude, and extra-strong squeezes of the 12 hands around the table.

20 July 2001


The Furniture Guild

(Postcard)

[Portland, Maine]

A short-eared mutt with one milk-white eye comes up to me as soon as I open the door of Betty's van. The mutt has a green tennis ball in his mouth, and he tosses it at my shoes. I kick it away and look around, but he retrieves it and in another moment he's back dropping it on my feet again. My ex-stepfather and I are parked by an aluminum-sided building whose open garage door reveals old furniture stacked every which way -- chests here, sideboards there, chairs hanging from the ceiling, My stepfather calls to a good-looking kid who emerges from a fenced-in lot where a couple of beat-up panel trucks are rusting away. The kid has beautiful dark eyelashes and he's wearing a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, tough-guy style. He has handsome, slender arms, but he can't be more than 17. The place looks like the kind of place you'd bring an old car to for a cheap oil change, not like a place you'd leave an antique secretary to have a crack in the desktop repaired. "He's in there," the kid says. "Fat guy in the back."

The mutt with one eye and another dog race us through the narrow aisles between tables and desks. The proprietor, when we find him, is using an awkward mix of words and gestures to converse with an old deaf man with piercing blue eyes and a white t-shirt stretched over an ample belly. "Used to work for me," the proprietor tell us. "Best there is." We go pull the secretary out of Betty's van. The proprietor and the kid and the deaf man and the dogs crowd around it, checking the carpentry and the finish and the crack. My stepfather and I follow the proprietor back through the aisles of furniture to his office. While he's filling out a receipt, I see the deaf guy gesturing excitedly at us from the garage door. We go back out -- dogs, tennis ball, and all. The kid has used an Allen key on his pocketknife to pick the lock on the desktop, for which we hadn't been able to find the original skeleton key. The kid and the deaf guy are grinning broadly, like thieves. The kid has such beautiful eyelashes. I'm staring at them when the mutt with one white eye drops the tennis ball on my foot again. I kick it away.

8 July 2001


William Carlos Williams at the Laundry Mat

(Postcard)

My friend Jason Hughes writes to say that he has been reading William Carlos Williams in the "laundry mat," as he puts it, and immediately my imagination assigns the image to Edward Hopper. In the Hopper painting I start to see, its details coming into focus one by one, it is night and we are looking at an empty downtown street of flat colors and simple geometries. The street is dark except for the bright fluorescent glow coming out of a plate-glass window under a neon sign that says "Laundry Mat." Beyond the window we see a wall of white double-stacked dryers with round doors like so many Cyclopean eyes. Off to the left is Jason, seen seated and in profile just inside the window, his head bowed over a battered copy of Pictures from Brueghel. (It looks just like my copy, in fact.) No one else is in the Laundry Mat. Jason reaches up to hook some loose strands of hair back behind his ear; the line he is reading is "women your age have decided/wars and the beat/of poems." There is laundry spinning in three dryers. Two poems from now, all three buzzers will go off, almost at the same time, but the dryer eyes won't blink.

2 July 2001


Black Barbie

(Postcard)

A few weeks ago I heard Lucille Clifton read a searing poem called "Jasper, Texas, 1998." It starts like this:

i am a man's head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body. the arm as it pulled away
pointed toward me, the hand opened once
and was gone.

It's not a long poem -- three stanzas -- but it is amazingly powerful. "Why and why and why," it asks, "should I call a white man brother?" I think of that poem after I slow my bike down for a car that's backing into a parking space a couple of blocks from my apartment: On the asphalt in the car's path is a naked black Barbie, face down. One leg is bent sharply up in front of her, as though she were a chorus girl kicking. The other leg is missing. She has one arm, and skin the color of milk chocolate, and yellow-gold hair spilling out all around her in the street. I can't see her face. The car is backing, backing, soon to back over her. "It's a doll," I tell myself. "It's not real. It's a doll some kid threw out." But I ride very quietly the rest of the way to work.

26 June 2001


William Carlos Williams and other mysteries

(Excerpt from a letter.)

Idling over coffee, avoiding errands, I read the whole of the Saturday paper, leafing even through the second real-estate section ("Apartments") and stumbling across the Post's lame personals. I glance through the "I Saw You" ads, almost all of which are set in suburban supermarkets or on I-270 (where apparently people are paying more attention to the faces in other cars than to traffic). But then this:

"This is just to say I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me. They were delicious, so sweet and so cold. 29952"

Curious, I call the 900 number ($2.39 a minute -- way more than the Blade charges), but all I get is "This advertiser has not yet recorded a message." You can still leave a message of your own if you want, but what I want is to know why a well-known William Carlos Williams poem is masquerading as an "I Saw You" ad in a major metropolitan daily. Can it possibly be meant for one particular person? Who? Or did whoever placed it mean to attract the curious -- of both sexes, all ages, all races, and all interests? Or is this the work of an underground poetry cell aiming to slip poems and references to poems unnoticed into the everyday babble? (If there isn't such a movement, maybe I should start one -- posting the shorter works of Dickinson and Auden beside the floor indicators in elevators and inside the doors of office refrigerators and the cabinets where extra paper for copiers is kept. How about a Guerrilla-Poetry Week? I can see poets fanning out with flashlights at 4 a.m. to chalk Tennyson's "Ulysses" on a sidewalk, soap snippets of Ginsberg and Jorie Graham on car windows, slip folded-up haiku into the vent slots of lockers in gyms...)

22 June 2001


Extras

(For the Postcard Project.)

In odd moments I watch television with the sound off, looking not at the main characters but at the extras -- the people chatting at remote tables in sitcom-set coffeeshops; the inevitable patient being wheeled down the hospital corridor just beyond where one character speaks so earnestly to another; the doctor in scrubs crossing suddenly in the background; the tanned, strolling beachgoers on "Baywatch" (which is almost always better with the sound off anyway). I wonder who choreographs the extras' brief trajectories across the screen, and what the actors playing them are told about their modest parts -- about where to look, about how to seem to be chatting and laughing without actually doing so, about not pushing the gurney into the star when you're rushing it down the corridor. I wonder whether, in some other dimension, people watch television shows in which our extras are the stars, and our stars are the extras -- the people arguing about something inconsequential in the hospital corridor as the main character is wheeled quickly past on his way to life-saving surgery. And I wonder whose lives I am the extra for -- my bike appearing briefly in the window of the restaurant where the big break-up is taking place, my grocery cart bumping gently into the hip of a stalker who is hiding her face from her prey, feigning interest in smoked Goudas and Morbiers when she really wants to steal the handsome man in shorts at the far end of the aisle away from the woman in red.

21 June 2001


Opera of the Air

(For the Postcard Project.)

On my balcony I have box seats for the opera of the air. The curtain goes up each morning at dawn, when the first birds sing the overture, but the real action picks up later, when marauding black crows swoop down to perch on the lights on the porch roof, cawing and crying. Others flap on heavy wings up to the high branches of the trees, crashing around in the leaves and making a hideous din. Next come the jays, squawking and squealing at the crows, at first standing off on nearby limbs but soon hurling themselves at the larger birds, pulling up or turning sharply to one side only at the very last second, just before coming within reach of the crows' beaks. The crows sometimes flinch, but never allow themselves to be chased away. Again and again the jays attack, squealing, wheeling in the air, small fearless birds trying in vain to dislodge large ones with the threat of collision as their only weapon. It makes for a loud and lively show, and the critics rave -- it's all for free. But, alas, I have yet to understand the plot. Are the crows robbing the jays' nests of eggs? Are the jays merely territorial? The management provides no surtitles, no stagebill, no plot summary. I am left to wonder, morning after morning, show after show.

18 June 2001


Sweepstakes

Michael,

Lately I come home every night to find five or six or eight messages on my answering machine. Most are hang-ups, but a few consist of someone saying "Hello? Hello?... Hello?" In the background I can hear a babble of other voices. It was an offhand remark from a friend -- "I love how short your message is. I hate having to listen when people have long greetings" -- that finally helped me put two and two together: When I recorded a new outgoing message a few weeks ago, I spoke so quickly and so briefly that now telemarketers' computers don't realize a machine has answered, rather than a real person. The computers go ahead and connect their next available human to my line, and it takes the human a few hellos to conclude that no one's going to respond.

It's kind of sad, really, playing back those hellos in the quiet of the front hall at 10:30 or 11, imagining big rooms full of people in tiny cubicles with banks of phones -- people whose unfulfilling, hype-laden jobs are emblematic of life here in the last superpower at the end of a particularly foolish millennium. This is what a thousand years' worth of advances in science and art have brought us to: Marketing people who are desperate for some slight edge over their competitors call your home at all hours, fill the magazines you read with eight-page inserts on heavy stock, clutter your mailbox with sweepstakes lies, spam your e-mail accounts. I can't imagine who pays attention to all their pleas -- who has time? Some days I think most Americans just want to be left alone, to be spared the day's dozens of dot-com ads on the radio and the evening's relentless "Judge Mathis" promos on television -- not to mention the newspaper ads for ridiculous "Collector's Edition" series of Princess Diana stamps and Christmas-village ceramics and mint-condition gold coins.

Do I rant? I suppose so. But hasn't life become unnecessarily complicated? I don't want to live out my years worrying every day that I'm not getting the best deal on long-distance service, or deleting e-mail offers from Northwest Airlines -- what kind of an existence is that? The minutes spent deciding to throw this piece of mail away and to erase that phone message are minutes not spent reading a poem, or writing one, or thinking whose eyelids you want to press your lips so gently against, and those minutes -- those intrusions -- all add up. When you don't get decent letters from me, blame MCI and Barnes and Noble. Or DNA, I guess, since this whole palatial architecture of hype is probably all just an elaborate expression of one gene strand's will to win out over another in the biggest sweepstakes of all: natural selection.

All right, I'll stop. Clearly I've had too much coffee this morning.

Washington, November 12, 1999


Toothbrush, West Fourth Street

Waiting at West Fourth Street for uptown N or R, I notice the usual things: the shallow brick vaults of the ceiling, as regular as breathing; the thick forest of black metal columns supporting Broadway; two trendy-looking teenagers joking and touching and nudging and laughing on a bench on the downtown platform -- girl in black bustier and black lace stockings, boy in baggy pants, baggy jacket, knit cap pulled low over his forehead. The train is a long time coming, the platform behind me fills up. I stare down at the rails, the blackened ties, the pools of oily black water, the filthy debris (even metal juice-bottle caps turn gray there, as if to blend in with their surroundings, like creatures of the ocean depths). After five minutes, I see that I've been staring right at a toothbrush, blackened like everything else. I wonder whose it was, how it came to be there. By accident? (A purse spilling out its contents while its owner looked for a compact...) By design? (A jilted New Yorker condemning the personal effects of his lost love to a rat-infested, grimy, and utterly indifferent hell...) By some careful, unknowable plan of the cosmos? (Trash spilling out of a garbage truck, the toothbrush falling onto the sidewalk and being kicked down through a vent into the station, there to wait in its assigned place for some event that neither rider nor rat can foretell...) Perhaps someday yet the toothbrush will set in motion events that will bring about -- who knows what? Conflagration? Salvation? True love?

New York City, undated.


Postcard from Rehoboth Beach

Rehoboth Beach, Del. -- The ghosts of vanished railroads haunt Routes 404 and 16, which bring travelers across the Eastern Shore to the beaches here in lower Delaware. Near Denton, Md., an unnatural flatness in the landscape betrays the location of a former grade crossing; a few hundred yards later, a swing-span trestle across the Choptank River stands forever open, bereft of its tracks and its trains. In Greenwood, Del., the rails remain, but the station is now an office, and it's been decades, no doubt, since a scheduled passenger train came through. Outside of Ellendale rusty tracks parallel the highway for several miles, but you never see even the humblest freight train, or a reason to run one.

Here in Rehoboth Beach, the old station has been made into a visitor's center, with a miniature lighthouse rising incongruously on its lawn. Looking closely, you can make out where tracks once crossed Rehoboth Avenue -- past the drawbridge, beside an antique-car dealership where a gleaming Pierce-Arrow from the '30s is currently on display. Buildings and lots in the neighborhood are still oriented to the railroad's right of way, but time and commerce have obliterated other evidence of the line's existence. The railroad arrived in Rehoboth in 1873, according to local histories, and it was a fixture of summer-resort life for generations. Now it's entirely forgotten.

Facing a laptop on the kitchen counter in a rented house, I try to keep in mind the impermanence of all things while I struggle with an unreliable telephone connection to my Internet-service provider. "You have been disconnected," the modem software tells me time and again -- usually when I'm almost done with some complicated chore that has taken me deep into a directory structure or a World-Wide Web site. As if to rub it in, the modem software forces me to click a button marked "Okay," which of course it is not. Technology is a blessing, except when it's a curse so frustrating that what you want to do more than anything in the world is hurl a few thousand dollars' worth of processors and pixels as far down the gravel driveway as you can.

That's not the point of a beach vacation, of course. The point of a beach vacation is to get a little time off before the fall semester starts. But once you own a laptop, it's hard to justify ignoring your e-mail, some of which is invariably urgent, vital, crucial -- or at least it seems so to the senders. And then, as long as you're on line anyway, you might as well deal with one or two little problems left over from last week, right? Next thing you know, it's lunchtime and you haven't set foot on beach or boardwalk. The communications-technology revolution that has been such a feature of the '90s has made it almost impossible to escape the relentless onslaught of forwarded mail, forwarded voice-mail, cc'd messages, and Word attachments.

What's scariest this morning is an e-mail message reporting that a friend has just upgraded to a new cell phone, one that will -- besides serving as a beeper and letting him play electronic games -- deliver e-mail to him wherever he is. I'm no longer even sure I want my e-mail to follow me home at night, much less accompany me to restaurants, or plays, or parks, or the surf's edge. I write back to say I can't see the appeal of such a device, but who am I to talk? I'm answering work-related e-mail here in the kitchen of my beach house.

Some days I look at the remains of forgotten railroads -- the overgrown ties and the abandoned bridges -- and I remind myself that what we think of today as powerful, cutting-edge technology is sure to go the same way in time. The laptop with the 250-megahertz chip and the backside cache will end up alongside the boxy 286 in the back of a closet; the cell phone loaded with games will seem as primitive as an answering machine with cassette tapes.

Other days -- unable to decide on a metaphor I prefer -- I tell myself that information technology as a whole is still at its Model-T stage, gaining wildly in popularity in spite of its awkwardness, but several evolutionary generations away from the magnificence of the Pierce-Arrow.

Eventually, I get to the beach. Out past the end of the boardwalk, past the houses and the state-park parking lot, you can walk a mile or so undisturbed by anything but tiny shore birds that race each wave across the sand. Here and there are the broken shells of horseshoe crabs, and jellyfish left by the outgoing tide -- solemn reminders that the planet's cycles go on unaffected by, and uninterested in, our telephone connections, our Word attachments, even electronic games you can play on a cell phone. Birth and death, winter and summer, generation upon generation, "what is past, and passing, and to come," as Yeats put it -- what are a few e-mails by comparison? Which is, I guess, what a beach vacation is really all about: putting things back in perspective. I hope I have.

Copyright 1998 The Chronicle of Higher Education
Published on line August 28, 1998


Michael,

A thin old guy in ragged clothes always stands just behind the guard rail at the same intersection on New York Avenue, between the bridge over the railroad yards and a crowded pie-wedge of a car-repair place that caters to the city's most battered cabs. The guy's face is so dirty you can't even guess what color his skin is, or started out being. He holds a short branch with leaves on the end, waving it at passing cars and smiling broadly as though welcoming people to the city. He keeps extra branches in a bucket beside him, and once -- but only once -- I saw him clutching some dollar bills in his other hand, no doubt as a hint. On very hot days, like yesterday, he moves to the shade of the overpass a few feet down from his normal post. I can't say for sure when I first noticed him -- I mean, it's not the kind of thing a person marks down in his calendar. But probably he's been there for two or three years, and I must have passed him dozens of times on my way back from the beach.

Yesterday, farther on, another ragged beggar appeared, this one even thinner than the first, his mouth forming an "O" as he moved from car window to car window between lanes of traffic waiting at one of the stoplights. It was almost two in the afternoon, brutally hot on the black pavement among even hotter cars. Most of the drivers waved him off without opening their windows, or pretended not to see him at all. This must be what hell is like.

Welcomed thus to my own city, I can't help wondering what distinguishes saints from beggars, whether searing heat and callous rejection cause delirium or purify the mind by driving all thought from it; and if all thought, all civilized knowledge is driven out, then what remains? Animal necessity? Or some form of innocence, if there is such a thing as innocence?

Washington, August 26, 1998


Albert,

...I just came back from an after-dinner walk on the boardwalk, and it still smells thickly of fried foods in the middle sections, where it's crowded with strolling families and roving packs of teenagers and people milling around the Funland (the odd thumping rhythm of the Whack-a-mole prevails, and of course I think of you every time I pass it). The south end is as desolate as ever, the more so because there are still always two or three lonely-looking men there cruising in the pools of light beneath the lampposts. The north end nearly as lonely, but not quite: In place of the lonely single men there are couples, talking earnestly on the benches and cuddling and watching the waves break. Loneliest-looking of all, though, was a girl who looked to be 8 or 9, playing in the sand by herself by a volleyball net. It was 10 o'clock already -- too late for kids to be on the beach in any case, but especially to be there alone. Puzzling this out, I finally spotted a blanket with two forms on it off in the darkness toward the water -- her parents, I guess. Or at least one of the two was a parent. It was a sad scene.

Rehoboth Beach, August 24, 1998