Sabbath Siren

A few minutes ago, sitting at my desk, writing, I heard what sounded like an air raid siren coming from somewhere off to the left out my window, which is at the back of the building, facing west to Prospect Park and Grand Army Plaza, which suggests the sound to be coming from the south-west which is, more or less, further down Eastern Parkway, the Lubovitch sect’s area of the neighbourhood. Friday evening, 8 p.m., dusk… close to sunset… Orthodox Jewish… the Sabbath… Bingo!

The siren, which sounds to me just like the ones I heard during tornado season while living in Lawrence, Kansas, belongs to the local Orthodox Jewish community, and has just now stopped signalling the onset of Sabbath. In the stunned aftermath a few dogs bark, but apart from that, there’s uneasy silence. I put on my earphones and resume listening to Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”. Soon enough the cars in my immediate area will begin to vibrate with rap and hip hop from Crown Height’s other predominant demographic, signalling the onset of the Memorial Day weekend.

Leitrim / Ditmas Avenue / Mexico City

An Orthodox man comes out of “Laundry Mania” with a white shirt draped in plastic, freshly-laundered and ready for tomorrow. A thin, young Hassidic man in a brown, furred hat like a lamp shade has his crying daughter firmly clasped in his arms. He’s marching ahead, wheeling a suitcase. It’s the eve of Sabbath, much work still remains to be done before the sun goes down, to prepare for when work must cease. There’s no mitigating circumstances when it comes to the Law. Auburn-wigged young wife walks behind in black, registering the argument in her demeanour, registering the husband’s stress in the downward-looking gaze and gait of her wife’s body.

Seriousness struggles with another kind of vigil: Friday night, and cheesy, sweet Latin American music pipes out of the shops, floating on the air. Clutches of Uzbek men in plastic leather jackets and 70s ‘taches, smoking rancid fags, eye the young women, who shun them with a self-turning shoulder. Some of the men feel like mafia, probably because they’re always around, doing nothing specific. They’ve claimed this pavement; you have to walk around them. Same with the Poles. (Hipsters, beware. Locals Rule here enough to resist gentrification. Ah… but gentrification is like Manifest Destiny. An inevitability in the U.S., and its empire abroad.)

A Mayan boy on the pavement in three-quarter-length khaki shorts is blowing bubbles upward into the Indian Summer evening sky, and I cross into Latin America. Passing the barber shop, Abel the barber from Mexico gets up from his ruminations to greet me: perfect grey flat top like a 50 year old punk, he wears a bone necklace, and has features like Quetzalcoatl. His wife is Irish. “David? si. Yo estaba pensando. el nombre de mi suegro es Mc…Dermott: y es de una ciudad que se llama Leitrim. Si, Leitrim.” (“David? Yes. I was thinking. My father-in-law’s name is Mc…Dermott, and he’s from a city called Leitrim.”) I go up the rickety wooden steps to the subway, laughing to myself and, in fact, some tears of connection squeeze their way out with the laughter: about how only New York, perhaps, can connect the watery fields of Leitrim (otters and loneliness), to Mexico via Brooklyn.

Abel’s daughter cut my hair the other day: “Blade 1? Easy haircut.” And yet, she dedicated a plethora of blades, scissors and talc, a wealth of pleasant attention to my pate, my beard, my neck. She taped old style, elasticated tissue around my throat; a sharp, pleasant, wet straight razor gliding down the back of my neck. Her hand adjusted my head with a firm, woman’s touch. She was wearing a water-based cologne that opened a wound of nostalgia for Spain. In the background, heroes and heroines swooned on soap operas piped in via satellite from “el D.F.” (Say it Day F-Aay, bud.) I get a chill when Mexicans say, “Soy del D.F.”, in response to my inevitable, “¿de dónde eres?” / “where are you from?” The sound values of those sibilants contain something of the day-to-day heroism and chaotic aliveness of Latin America: it’s Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Cuzco, it’s Asunción; it’s Sao Paolo, and of course it’s the Distrito Federal. New York may be the shit, but the true motherlode, the big hearted Mother City, is “el D.F.“, homes. Mexico City, baby.


25th August, 2010

At JFK, taxis are pulling up quick and fast. A teak-skinned shaved-headed taxi marshal with an African accent wearing a black baseball cap and an odd long black Bat Man raincoat that reads Marshal works his way up and down the incomings, demanding taxi receipts; spiking them with a pen, he hands them to the passengers as a receipt. Three black girls from London with 70s frizzed-out hair and huge sun glasses have too much luggage. There’s a rock band air about them; or, simply, three girls on a hard core shopping spree to the Apple. A Sikh driver gets out, a wonderful contrast between his turban, his pinstriped shirt hanging out, and his black skateboarding Vans. I like the way he rolls. A young Indian driver in rolled up jeans and brown leather sandals gets out, rubbing his eyes; another marshal, white dude with a uniform like a prison officer and a military haircut, hustles us along. I look to my left, and there’s a dude like Samuel L. Jackson; to the right, an Orthodox Jewish family, all little boys with side-locks; fathers with huge beards and massive hats and robe-like black coats, and dumpy mothers in sensible shoes. A rogue driver is whispering “taxi?…” to us from an oblique angle, and then speaking in Latin American Spanish on his ear piece. It’s all here.

The first view of Manhattan comes as we barrel down the highway, the tyres pocking and sending a small, repetitive boom juddering through the car. The first view of Manhattan doesn’t happen to the mind. It happens to the body. We are barrelling down the highway as if the Indian taxi driver wants to send us off a cliff; just then, the skyline rises up, and I see the Empires State, its tip in cloud, like an elegant conductor to the sky; a gritty grey mass of cloud covering the island. The smell of humidity from my childhood in Connecticut is there, though three days’ rain has freshened it. The skyline, with the overcast sky, is immense. Although of course indicative of human endeavour, under the overcast, gritty sky, it seems more like a monument to some stupendous geological event. There’s a blow to the body, to the breath, and tears start happening, approaching this, a wordless “OH, shit.” rising up, hollowing out the body’s interior, that is the closest thing to approaching the Iguazu Falls’ endless roaring.

Before the Midtown tunnel are the beautiful, red metal under-struts of the Triborough Bridge, people strolling under them. There’s the smell of shirts being ironed, a laundry smell. Then I realise it’s the tunnel’s air circulation system. Out the other side are the canyon-like, red-bricked lanes that, if you took the wrong one, could put you in traffic hell for hours. I remember them from the 1980s, when we would be in what seemed like 5 lanes of traffic, a sense of war and warriorhood to the kind of driving that was demanded. We take Downtown, and suddenly Manhattan opens up, not monumental, but intimate, almost small scale. We head down 2nd Avenue as far as 18th Street, Gramercy, and a young blonde woman like a model is strutting with the street as her catwalk; everyone is. A young Italian woman in a black dress holds out her arm for a taxi (a dramatic gesture); there’s hundreds of them. A Chinese delivery man from some local restaurant is riding his delivery bike the wrong way up the Avenue, not even nonchalantly, just not giving a shit.

Later, I leave Martin’s peaceful, Buddhist-tinged basement apartment to buy a six pack of Pacifico at the Japanese-owned grocery shop on 3rd Avenue. People are eating at the thin-crust Pizzeria on the corner; a woman eyes me and smiles from the terrace. Trees, darkness, elegant 19th century brick buildings; Manhattan brownstones.  Three sleek young white women in short silk party skirts with pressed, straightened hair leave a house and say, with Californian uplift, “is it, raining?” And, in fact, some drops start to fall through the street lights. It’s peaceful in the side streets of Gramercy as the rain starts to fall.