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I moved from San Francisco to New York City in 1998. I was working at the time as a marketing person for a large American corporation that provided the conversion of printed documents to digital ones, digital storage capabilities, and corporate mailing services.
I recall too well how boring all that was. I was aware of that already, of course, and although they didn’t know it, I had talked the company into moving me to New York simply so that I could live there. My job was to call on the headquarters of Fortune 500 companies, which may sound thrilling to some. But Fortune 500 companies are as tiresome as any other simply because they are business entities. That they are cash-cow monoliths does not make them any less dull. In whatever case, my interest in the corporate bottom line and a high-rise corner office suite had always been minimal, even though business had allowed me to live with a certain amount of style in San Francisco and now in Manhattan.
I knew on my first morning as a citizen of New York City that I had made the right decision, even though the temperature was in the low teens. It was a rattling cold New York winter day, in bright, cloudless sunlight. The evidence of snow from a few days before was still there on the sidewalks and, as blackened ice, at the street corners. I wore a new wool overcoat buttoned to the top, my neck buffered by a soft wool scarf.
I was happy.
Just then, I met the first New Yorker with whom I was to have a significant encounter. He was a bilingual madman. Dressed untidily, his hair like scum-lined, twisted wires, his overcoat splotched with mud and, maybe, dried soup, wearing sunglasses, he attacked me as I was walking down East Eighty-second toward Fifth Avenue and the Metropolitan Museum.
The first thing he did was to take a swing at me. I fell away—gracefully, I thought—with enough physical panache that the assailant missed. Very angered by this, he began shouting and gesturing at me with a fist. I was, he thought, a son of a bitch, a rich white boy pussy, a faggot and, then, a pendejo, a cuero, an hijo de puta, and a mama ñema. I speak Spanish, and knew all those phrases, except for mama ñema. When I looked it up that afternoon, I found that such a person, in the Dominican Republic, is a man who offers sexual services to another man with his tongue and mouth. The phrase itself carries considerably less politesse than does my explanation of it.
My assailant then turned away and ran across Eighty-second, headed toward Central Park.
A young couple walking their dog hurried up from behind, to make sure I was okay. They asked where I was from. When I told them, they apologized profusely for my attacker’s behavior, and told me that New Yorkers were simply not like that. “New York is safe,” the man said. “You can walk in this city.”
I subsequently found that was true. I was never so approached again during the three years I lived in Manhattan.
I knew that I would write about New York. One of my reasons for wanting to move there was to do just that. I had traveled to Manhattan many times for pleasure and business, and loved the place as a tourist. I expected that would be the case even more so were I to live there, and that also proved to be true. But my encounter with this fellow (despite the fact that I was no mama ñema) was memorable. A fictionalization of it for the first New York story I was to write (titled, appropriately, “The High Line”) was my first effort to describe the experience of living in Manhattan.
Soon enough I was to learn that approximately eight hundred languages are spoken in the five New York boroughs, a result of the city’s numberless immigrations. My previous fiction often features Americans living outside the United States, in circumstances in which a major portion of their difficulty is the fact that they don’t fit in, linguistically or culturally. That was a feature of my own early adulthood when I lived for a few years with tribal peoples on Borneo, on the Malaysia-side of that huge island. I learned then that to be in a position in which I must learn how other people speak, live, feel, think, and treat each other is a true privilege. That understanding has been a major factor in all my writing.
Because of those many cultures in New York, the city is for me its own foreign country. Even those speaking New York-style English from birth are outside the general North American identity, because of the way they talk and, occasionally, act. Throughout my time there, I was often singled out for the way I dressed (“You don’t own a tie, pal?”), the way I proceeded through conversation (“Hey, get to the point.”), and the principled naivety I displayed with regard to how things get done in business in New York. (I once asked a senior marketing guy at one of the Fortune 500s for advice about whom I should call on in the company, to tout our services. He gave me a name, and offered to make an introduction for me. I gladly accepted, and then he suggested that next time I visit his office, I bring along a gift certificate for a full set of Callaway golf clubs and a Wilson bag in which to carry them. Flummoxed, I stammered that I thought the services I was bringing with me would greatly improve his company’s bottom line, and I would make it clear to everyone with whom I spoke that he was personally responsible for such an improvement in operations. After a lengthy silence, he told me he had a meeting to go to. I never saw him again, and never got any business from that Fortune 500.)
I frequently was asked where I was from. (Native New Yorkers thought I talked funny.) A typical response to my answer was given me by my client at ASCAP, which at the time was located in an office building directly across Broadway from Lincoln Center. Joe was a New Yorker from the Bronx…a good guy, no nonsense. When I explained that I was from San Francisco, his response was “I don’t get it. You’re from San Francisco, and you came here to live? Why the f**k would you do somethin’ like that??”
The book I wrote is titled New York, and was published this week.
Terence Clarke is back in San Francisco. His story collection, New York, is available at your local bookstore and at Amazon.com. He is currently at work on a new novel, The Splendid City, which recounts an incredible life-threatening adventure in the life of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. This piece appeared originally in HuffPost.
Under the headline “Gabo Returns to Colombia”, the Colombian magazine Revista Arcadia published the following today:
Penguin Random House, owner of the world rights to the works of Gabriel García Márquez, will publish the complete works of the Nobel Prize winner in Colombia on December 12, 2014.
The absurd situation regarding García Márquez’s novels in Colombia seems to be coming to an end. After a number of years during which only paperback editions could be obtained in commercial bookstores here, due to the very low sales commission rates offered to independent book stores by Editorial Norma—the previous owner of the rights—luxury hard-cover editions will finally now be available everywhere in the country.
In recent years, the circumstances have taken on laughable dimensions. When García Márquez passed away, the majority of his books were re-issued in Argentina and Mexico, but not in Colombia.
Given that, some booksellers had to resort to selling English-language editions or to purchasing the books from Amazon for re-sale. Now, thanks to the publisher Penguin Random House, the complete works of the Nobel Prize winner will be re-issued in Colombia.
To celebrate, here following is my translation of a little story by Gabo that was published originally in 1978…
Light’s like Water
Gabriel García Márquez
At Christmas, the boys once again asked for a rowboat.
“All right,” their daddy said. “We’ll buy it when we get back to Cartagena.”
Totó, who was nine, and Joel, seven, were far more decided about this than their parents could even believe.
“No,” they chorused. “We want it now and here.”
“To start with,” the mother said, “there aren’t any navigable waters here other than what comes out of the shower.”
She was just as right about this as her husband was. In their house in Cartagena de Indias, there was a patio with a pier on the bay, and a boat shelter for two large yachts. By comparison, here in Madrid they all lived jammed together on the fifth floor of 47 Paseo de la Castellana. But in the end, nether daddy nor mommy could say no because they had promised the boys a rowboat, along with a sextant and a compass, if they were to win the third grade prize, and they had won it.
So it was that the daddy bought the boat without saying a word to his wife, who was the more reluctant of the two to pay off any sort of gambling debt. It was a cute aluminum boat with a line of golden rope along the waterline.
“The boat’s in the garage,” the daddy revealed at lunch. “The problem is, there’s no way to bring it up either in the elevator or on the stairs, and there’s no more available space anywhere.”
That Saturday afternoon, however, the boys invited their classmates over, to bring the boat up by the stairs, and they succeeded in getting it into the utility room.
“Congratulations,” the daddy said to them. “And now what?”
“Nothing now,” the boys said. “The only thing we wanted was to get the boat into the room, and now it’s there.”
The next Wednesday night, as on all Wednesday nights, the parents went to the movies. The boys, now owners and masters of the house, closed the doors and windows, and broke the lit-up light bulb of a living room lamp. A spray of golden light, fresh as water, began to come out of the broken bulb, and they let it run up, until the level of it reached that of four open handprints. Then they cut off the current, brought out the boat, and navigated at their pleasure through the islands of the house.
This fabulous adventure was the result of a bit of flippancy on my part when I participated in a seminar on the poetry of domestic utensils.
Totó asked me how it was that light came on simply from the pressing of a switch, and I didn’t have the nerve to think about it even more than just once.
“Light’s like water,” I responded to him. “You open the tap, and out it comes.”
Thus did they continue navigating every Wednesday in the evening, learning how to handle the sextant and the compass, until their parents would come back from the movies to find them sleeping like angels on terra firma.
Months later, eager to go even further, they asked for fishing equipment. Everything: masks, flippers, oxygen tanks and compressed-air spear guns.
“It’s bad enough that you’ve got a rowboat in the utility room that doesn’t do anything,” the father said. “But it’s worse that you also want diving equipment.”
“And if we win the first semester Golden Gardenia?” Joel said.
“No,” said the mother, frightened. “No more!”
The father reproached her for her intransigence.
“Look, these kids don’t get a penny even for doing their homework,” she said, “but with some little caprice like this, they’re able to take over for the teacher himself.”
The parents didn’t say either yes or no finally. But Totó and Joel, who the previous two years had come in last, won the two Golden Gardenias in July, and the public recognition of the school rector. That same afternoon, without having had to ask again, they found in their bedroom the diving gear in its original packaging. So that, the following Wednesday, while the parents saw Last Tango in Paris, the boys filled the apartment up to two fathoms deep, dived like peaceful sharks under the furniture and beds, and rescued from the very bottom of the light those things that for years had been lost in darkness.
At the final awards ceremony, the brothers were acclaimed as an example to the school, and were given diplomas of excellence. This time, they didn’t have to ask for anything, because their parents asked them what they wanted. The boys were very reasonable, asking only for a party at home to honor their schoolmates.
The father, left alone with their mother, was radiant.
“It’s proof of their maturity,” he said.
“God is listening,” said the mother.
The following Wednesday, while their parents went to see The Battle of Algiers, the people passing up la Castellana saw a cascade of light from an old building hidden among the trees. It came down from the balconies, spilling in gushes down the front of the building, and made a channel up the great avenue in a golden torrent that lit up the city all the way to the Guadarrama.
Called out urgently, firemen forced open the door on the fifth floor, and found the house covered in light up to the ceiling. The sofa and armchairs, covered in leopard skin, floated around the room at different levels, between bottles from the bar and the baby grand piano and its manila-colored cover, which flapped around half-submerged like a golden manta ray. The domestic utensils, in the fullness of their poetry, flew with their own wings across the heaven of the kitchen. The military band instruments, to the music from which the boys danced, floated in a circle around the drain among the fishes liberated from mommy’s fishbowl, which were the only ones that floated alive and happy in the vast illuminated swamp. In the bathroom, everyone’s toothbrush floated about, with daddy’s condoms, mommy’s jars of cream and her extra set of dentures, the television from the principal bedroom floating on its side, still turned on to the last scene of a late-night film prohibited to kids.
At the end of the corridor, floating and perplexed, Totó was seated in the rowboat’s stern, hanging on to the oars with a set face, looking for the port lighthouse from which he could refill the air tanks, and Joel floated in the prow still searching the height of the polar star with the sextant, and their 37 classmates floated through the entire house as though forever in the very moment of going pee-pee in the pot of geraniums, of singing the school hymn changed with lyrics mocking the rector, and secretly drinking glassfuls of brandy from daddy’s bottle. They had turned on so many lights at the same time that the house had spilled over with it, and the entire first-year room of the San Julián el Hospitalario School had been drowned on the fifth floor of number 47 Paseo de la Castellana. In Madrid, Spain, a remote city of burning summers and icy winds, without a sea or a river, whose terra firma aborigines had never mastered the science of navigating the light.
“Excuse me.” The black man wore a puffy double-breasted brown suit that was too large for his enormous frame. The tie seemed to have been tied just once, then loosened, removed and put back on, over and over again for years. His black shoes had quite thick soles and heels, the kind of footwear worn by security guards, so that what they give to the wearer in comfort, they lose in style. This man also carried a large Trader Joe’s paper bag that contained a number of sheet music manuscripts, the covers of which, Monk could see, had faded badly or were scuffed along the edges. “May I ask you a question?”
Monk Samuels had been looking at an old Bechstein B grand piano that he frequently came to admire, jealous that such a fine instrument could be sitting alone – music itself, as it were, waiting to be played – on the showroom floor. His jealousy was restrained, though, because he was also very glad that the piano store, called Debussy, on West 58th Street, had the good sense to display this instrument. It had been sold back to the store recently, and rebuilt. The refined beauty of its finishing, its general appearance so dignified and perfectly lacquered ebony, were matched – overwhelmed actually – by its somber tone. This piano played intimately, yet with a heartfelt resonance that made the delicacy of feel in its keyboard seem a miracle. Monk was thrilled to be able to come into the store and, watched always by the salesman Sergei, play one or two little things.
They had become friends. One of Sergei’s duties was to protect the pianos from amateurs, unless of course some amateur had just bought one of them and the bank had transferred the funds. He had learned though that Monk knew what he was doing, even though he was not doing, say, Mozart. More often Monk did Bill Evans or Duke Ellington. But that was OK with Sergei because Monk understood those fellows so well.
Monk looked up from the piano bench. “A question?”
He had seen this man in the store on several occasions. He too appeared to savor the pianos. He walked around studying them, always with the bag of sheet music hanging from one hand. Monk had never seen him play, and had even asked Sergei about him.
“I’ve asked him if he wanted to try any of the instruments.” Sergei’s Hungarian accent remained slightly noticeable in his otherwise American English. He had come to New York as an infant, after the 1956 uprising in Hungary. He had, he often said, difficulty selling an instrument to anyone who resembled Nikita Krushchev. Sergei played piano well enough, but his real talent lay in understanding the workings inside the instrument. He had perfect pitch, and could fix almost anything that had been broken for whatever reason. His angular frame was all bony and slow moving. He thrived on hearing and then repairing the least noticeable of problems in a piano. Indeed, he seemed to rage within himself in search of such things.
“But he never has wanted to. I know he understands the music, the way he talks about the piano. And all that sheet music. He finds it in second-hand shops. He even has a copy of a Mozart sonata signed by Rubinstein.” Sergei placed a hand in the pocket of his suit coat and brought out a pipe, which he tapped against the palm of his left hand. “But, play? No.”
“Yes.” The man dropped the shopping bag to the floor, and then ran his right index finger along the lacquered surface of the Bechstein. “It’s just that I think you are not American.” His accent was Hispanic, Monk guessed.
A large grin appeared. “For one, you say things like ‘Good morning’ and ‘How are you?’”
Monk extended his hand. “Aren’t you talking more about someone who isn’t from New York?”
“Maybe that’s it.”
“Because I’m not from New York.” Monk took the man’s hand into his. “I’m Monk Samuels.”
“Thank you. And I am Rodney Echeverría.”
Rodney’s left shoulder dropped, a bit of despondency. “No. Cuba.”
“I’m from California.”
“Ah, that explains it.”
“Your seeming so foreign.”
Rodney invited Monk to join him for coffee at a place on 57th, across the street from Carnegie Hall. It was there that Monk explained to him why he was named Monk.
“The great one, who played so out of tune.”
“Yes. My father was a fan.”
“He was a musician?”
“No, he helped fund companies. Apple Computer and so on. Cisco Systems. He was very successful.”
“Unlike my father…” Rodney made a circle with his right index finger on the tabletop. “Who taught piano for an hourly fee.”
“Mine loved Thelonious Monk because he played so many bad notes. He knew it was intentional on Thelonious’s part. He loved the comedy of it.”
“Just the comedy?”
“No. He also felt that Thelonious played with more delicacy and understanding than almost any of the other guys.” Monk wrapped the fingers of both hands around the warm mug of coffee. “The sorrow in all that discord.” His eyes blinked as he thought of his father, who had been a far better venture capitalist than musician, but who had known, somehow, who played well and who didn’t. “Thelonious Monk was a very great man.”
“He’s gone, your father.”
“A few years ago, yes.”
“And he enjoyed your playing.”
“I think it amazed him. He always asked from where, in his or my mother’s DNA…”
“Where did it come from?”
“And so, you are named after Thelonious, bad notes and…”
“Yes, bad notes and all.” Monk nodded toward the paper bag. “But why do you go to Debussy?”
“It’s that Bechstein, Monk. My father brought it with us from Cuba. We had lost everything except for that piano. Imagine trying to get an instrument like that out of danger when danger is everywhere. Our escape took all his money. But then he had to give up the piano itself because eventually we still had no money.”
“He sold it.”
“Yes. To Debussy. I was just a little kid when it happened. Like Sergei when he came to this country.” Rodney hid a smile behind his right hand. “There are a few differences between us, of course. I’m a black caribeño, and he’s…he’s…” Rodney looked over his shoulder. “He’s a northern European white boy. The Communists put down the rebels in his country.”
“And in yours, the Communists won.”
Rodney’s lips tightened as his shoulders sagged. “Yes, sadly.”
“How long have you been coming to Debussy, Rodney?”
“This year, it’s fifty years.”
“And the piano’s been there…”
“It’s been in the store, off and on, since that first time that my father brought me.” Rodney stirred some sugar into his coffee. “They would sell it and it would be gone for a while. But then it would come back…the most recent owner had died or had bet wrong on the market or something. And then my father would come back.”
“Why haven’t you ever played it?”
Rodney gave Monk a look of hurt and even, very briefly, dismay. “You would ask me to betray him?”
“No. Rodney, I…”
“The piano’s been in prison, don’t you see?”
Monk searched Rodney’s eyes, a petition for forgiveness. “What was your father’s name?”
“Wilfredo Echeverría Bourbón.”
“What did he do that first day he brought you to the store?”
Rodney remained silent for a long moment. “He too was heavy, like me. He breathed with difficulty, a raspy sound that he had to quell when he was playing. He often said to me that he was afraid the children he taught would think him a ghost, a ‘fantasma’, as we say.” He spoke haltingly, as if a wound had seeped open. “With chains running around his lungs. That day, he stared at the piano a long while.”
The wound flowed. “No. He placed his right hand on the keyboard and played a few chords.”
“Do you remember which ones?”
“Brahms. And Beethoven, of course.” Rodney lowered his voice, almost to a whisper. “Before Fidel and the revolution, my father had been considering a concert career. Even though he was black, he was arranging for his first appearances in Europe, but…” Rodney took in a breath. “Fidel and Che, they didn’t think much of that idea.” Rodney sipped from his coffee, replaced the cup on the table, and fingered a small macaroon – his favorite cookie, he had told Monk – as he considered what next to say. “A career extinguished before it could even get started.” He brought the macaroon to his lips, savoring the coconut. “My father loved Brahms. But he often told me that he could barely speak of Brahms in the same breath with Beethoven.”
“And he couldn’t afford to buy the piano back.”
“Never. He played on all kinds of other instruments. Friends’ pianos. Pianos in the public schools where he taught. Tinny, elderly pianos. Out of tune, exhausted pianos. His students’ pianos when their mothers would allow a black man like him to come into their apartments. But that Bechstein…he called it ‘my Debussy’. The loss of that piano broke my father, Monk, almost as much as the revolution did.”
Rodney exhaled, a bit of gravel in his own breathing.
“It broke his heart.”
They did not see each other for several weeks. Mid-summer blazed, and Sergei told Monk that Rodney suffered from the heat, and that he had been staying at home. “It’s his weight, I think. I worry about him.”
Monk had floated the loan finally, cleared the space in his apartment on Riverside Drive, and the moving men delivered the Bechstein on a Friday afternoon. He asked Sergei to come to the apartment the next day and check the instrument’s tuning. In the early evening, after Sergei had completed his work, he asked Monk to play.
Monk poured out two glasses of sauvignon blanc and sat down at the piano to play a version of “I Got It Bad, And That Ain’t Good”. The lilt and frivolity of the tune made both men smile, especially when Monk played it in a few different styles…Art Tatum’s, Oscar Peterson’s and, of course, Thelonious Monk’s. Like Thelonious, Monk intentionally missed notes, came up short on the chords or played chords that were heavily discordant. He did not know whether Sergei could imagine the fruitlessness of such a task, since Monk’s playful clumsiness was so much less accomplished than Thelonious’s would have been. Monk knew that he had talent as a pianist, but not talent like that.
Nonetheless, as the lowering sun approached the gilt-tinged river, Monk also knew that this was the piano that he had been searching for all his life. The many recordings he had made, the critical acclaim he had garnered, and his ongoing career as a Grammy-winning jazz pianist…all had been aiming at a piano like this one, and now, finally, the piano was his.
“Bravo.” Sergei raised the glass in a toast to Monk’s superb playing.
Marta insisted on making coffee.
“My wife makes the very best coffee in the world.” Rodney sat in an armchair smoking a cigar. “She is Cuban, after all, and so you would expect such excellence.”
A small woman in a burgundy colored dress, her very black hair detailed with a white gardenia, Marta went into the small kitchen in Monk’s apartment, exclaimed about Monk’s good taste to have a proper Bialetti 6800 Moka Express 6-cup stovetop espresso maker “ready to roll”, as she put it, laughing, the “R’s” burbling from the end of her tongue with correct Cuban gusto, and set to work. She also found the package of coconut macaroons on the sink, which Monk had bought earlier from Zabar’s, and went about arranging them on the plate he had left for her.
“Well, Rodney?” Monk sat in a second armchair. He had taken great care with his appearance on this afternoon, making sure that the double-breasted gray suit he wore fit him well, was properly pressed and formed a formal, modest witness, with the deep blue silk tie and paisley green kerchief, to what it was about to hear.
Rodney stood, placed the cigar in an ashtray on the coffee table before him, and warmly examined Wilfredo’s Debussy. “Thank you, Monk.” He walked toward the piano, and then ran a hand across the ebony lacquer, lightly strummed the strings inside the instrument and listened to the buzz-like response that resulted, a sound that had always reminded Monk of some sort of laughing threnody. He loved the sound, the shimmering anguish of it.
Rodney sat on the lacquered bench and began playing. It was a small Mozart piece. “Köchel 311, Monk. Second movement.” Marta stood silently in the doorway to the kitchen, her right hand resting against her right cheek, as she watched her husband. He played the piece with unsettling slowness. His head hung over the keyboard, almost motionlessly. Tenderness riffled from the instrument, Rodney’s very large fingers making the lightest of impressions on the keys. The music formed a small stream of sound hurrying through smooth caressing stones, beneath a dawn filled with slowly warming light. It was a sad memory brightly recalled, played so lightly that the lightness itself became an elegy, an expression of true mourning.
(This story is from my book New York.)