Like Something out of The Warriors, Paranoid Version

Not For Tourists says: “if you’re bored in New York, you have only yourself to blame.” I’m sure that’s true. While having lunch yesterday with the poet Philip Fried in Edgar’s Café, right beside the site of Edgar Allen Poe’s farmhouse on the Upper West Side where the streetscape, elegant, sunlit, airy, reminded me with a “keen nostalgia” of autumn in Madrid eight years ago, he said: “where else in the world can you go out your door and, within half an hour, be looking at Rembrant?” I asked him how he dealt with all the possibilities, and he mentioned the flip side: getting sucked into one’s daily routine, and how you might, out of all the ways to walk to work, always take the same route. (Surely, though, that’s the antidote to possibility-madness: carving out a village in the city.) He also admitted to “New York guilt”, something most likely shared by many: that you really should be out there, attending the latest opening, restaurant, or bar, or whatever…

It’s Saturday night, and I’m not out. I’m lying on my bed, watching the quirky French documentary The Gleaners and I, while I take my time writing this. Staying in and “not giving a damn” (a phrase in quotation marks ever since Gone with the Wind), is surely assisted by having a hangover: oh… because I went out last night with the MFA kids and got rat-arsed in the East Village, after the NYU reading at KGB, and ended up somewhere in the West Village with a Southern, Floridian writer who has lived everywhere, is a perfect raconteur, who regaled us with tales of Southern literary mischief, as well as the perfect wing man, who possesses a leg as hollow as mine but is probably better able to take the morning-after consequences. By 1 a.m., we were the last ones standing, and washed up like storm debris at a bar full of stockbrokers and thin blondes in miniskirts. Before getting in, we alienated the tank-like African American bouncer by smoking in the wrong place (“I told you to smoke by the ash tray”, and then he proceeded to let other people in ahead of us for 5 minutes).

Having gone outside with a cute black girl, she and I were immediately surrounded by smooth-talking, cock-blocking Swiss and Brit Euro trash. We made up, however, by smoking a communal roll-your-own “cigarette” that induced what the posse calls a “whitener”, which apart from pale nausea and head-spins, created the urgent need to sit on an adjacent stoop for half an hour, and whispered the fear that I would never find my way home – “ah, Existential Angst, my old friend! Sshho, you’re still working for Largo” (forgive the Sean Connery-esque, James Bond interjection). I was also afraid that if I stood up, I’d immediately fall down, and that if I stopped a taxi, I wouldn’t be able to make myself understood.

Luckily, I finally left the stoop, stopped hypnotically watching high heels and leather loafers pass by (so this is what it feels like to be homeless: invisible), made for the nearest “boulevard”, and realised (a) that I could walk and (b) that West 4th Street station was only 10 minutes walk away. What bliss! The city was finally comprehensible. After buying a 1$ bottle of water from a tender, white-haired Indian man, and being buttonholed by a hustler to whom I paid 5$ for the privilege of listening to a series of racist and homophobic jokes, and after being accosted by a lunatic woman in the subway, who turned aggressive when I foolishly answered one of her rants (she was booted out by 5 of NYPD’s subway division who appeared out of nowhere – “GO! I’m tellin’ you! Get outta here!”) – after it all, I found my platform, feeling like something out of The Warriors, paranoid version.

Twenty minutes later, the F came slowly round the corner of the tunnel – oh, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home! – and me and the Seven Sleepers were on the train to Stillwell Avenue and Coney, nodding in our respective corners. Coming down the old wooden steps of the elevated station, I stopped off at the local all-night bodega (corner-shop) to buy crusty bread, humus and milk, which I proceeded to eat in bed while watching a cheesy rom-com on Netflix. And then, at 5 a.m.: sleep. So, no: tonight I’m not tempted. And, I’m not guilty.

Looking for Pessoa

Looking for Pessoa, in a shocking lapse I forget his name (and go up to the sales assistant, who’s sitting in the poetry ghetto, where even an “independent bookstore” like McNally Jackson in SoHo relegates us. She’s doesn’t seem to be busy, doesn’t give me a passive-aggressive answer, and googles “Most famous Portuguese poet”. He comes up. “God bless G,” she says, probably relieved to be saved so easily from another crazed customer) – I forget him, just as I remember my own heteronym, just as the volume by P goes Protean and splashes all over the floor; just as I almost forget Craig Arnold’s name, looking for a single salutary volume of poetry to take to bed, to take me through October and beyond. Shameless plug, but I look for Breytenbach and, another lapse, they don’t have his work – I would go to the NYU bookshop, but that monolith already has enough of my dosh.

The two eds of Pessoa, City Lights and Penguin, are different takes, and no original Portuguese. I “wanted the Portuguese” (I already hear some pretentious twat say that at some future adjacent table; he probably has an English accent, or sounds suspiciously middle class Dublin, like moi…). Indeed, I did so very much want the Portuguese (“did I tell you about my year in Porto? Wonderful, darling. Just wonderful”), so I’m going the way of the scab, the miser and the careful student, and will get it out of the Bobst Library which, like a red ochre beast with a suspicious resemblance to Uluru (previously known as Ayer’s Rock), has colonised one whole corner of Washington Square, to the ire of Greenwich Village’s matronery and marginals. I heard only last night over beers that the library sees several suicides per year, via its vertiginous central gallery.

*

After deciding against Pessoa, I “settled” on Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (in archipelago books),  a settling which, in fact, is more like rising into the air. I “discovered” him recently. In discovery, as upcoming Columbus Day reminds us (incidentally a day greatly feted by Italian Americans in pizza and cannelloni suits), you discover that other people were there before you. I joined a country called “Darwish”, so elegant and simple and proud. Luckily, there was no immigration process. (Maybe it’s also called Palestine, but it’s harder to get into and out of, if you’re actually from there.) And, there’s also quite a long, narrow, passionate, Chile-shaped country in NYC called Roberto Bolaño . Women outside literary bars ask me while dragging on a fag, “so, who’d you like?” And I feel returned to teenage discos, when “Cure”, “Smiths” could get you a snog, if she was a Cure-head; but the wrong answer was inner martyrdom (what about the “Buzzcocks”?) Bolaño gets them nodding – better get reading. (I could in the original if that were the only thing I were doing. But it isn’t, and I’m “sawwww fucking busy,” to plagarise the New York cliché that is so obvious that it shades into offensiveness. And yet, you overhear it everywhere: “I’m SO busy; oh, hold on, honey: (vicious tonal change)”can I get a triple macchiato with a Xanax froth? Yeah, stat. YEAH. To go. – Come on, barista? What else is there? Take out is the new eating in.”)

B. Breytenbach read the class Darwish’s poem, ‘To Describe an Almond Blossom’, one of those poems that builds with inevitable, simple, heart-breaking imagery (it is, in fact, a poem that merits that description). While hearing it, you hope, “please don’t disappoint me” – which it doesn’t; it fulfils your hearing. It also fulfils one of the most basic, non-logical criteria of art, which, to paraphrase either Lorca or Robert Graves, is that art should raise the hairs on the back of your neck – one the unmistakeable signs of artistic transcendence. (As the oracle says to Neo in The Matrix, “No one can tell you you’re in love. You just know it. Through and through. Balls to bones.”) So, when the hair goes up all along my arms and on my neck, I know what I’m hearing is the real stuff.

In the end, I bought his book: took away a little stone, to place among all the other stones on his burial cairn.