San Francisco has long avoided the explosion of dull, ho-hum facelessness that has characterized the architecture of our major cities during the last hundred years or so.
Very tall. No decoration. Blocked views.
Until recently, the single word one heard more than any others from San Francisco visitors was ”charm.” The charm of the city simply could not be denied, and few who have seen it have attempted to do so.
For me, the city is a kind of secret haven in which marvelous food, amazing views, fine weather, great music, sophisticated writing and, now and then, if you really look for it, good art can be found with little effort. I’ve been here off and on my entire life, and look out at the rest of the United States as though I am a protected species.
But I am more of an adventurer than that, and I look to see what’s happening in other cities and countries. So I leave San Francisco every few years, and go live somewhere else. Thus far, that has included a few years each in Sarawak (on the island of Borneo) and Paris, a most unlikely combination of venues. Also, long sojourns in Argentina, Mexico, Great Britain, Nicaragua, Ireland, Guatemala, California’s Humboldt County, Texas, Berkeley, and that other distinguished California capital, Oakland.
Most particularly, though, I enjoy New York City, the place in which the fictions in my latest book are situated. I even gave the book the very original title of New York, the only words I could think of that would do justice to the intensity of life there. Say the two words, and you are immediately taken up by excitement, or at least I am.
Just now I’m reading Mike Wallace’s amazing Greater Gotham, the second volume of his projected series on the history of that city. I read the first volume, Gotham, (written by Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows) when I was living in Manhattan in the early 2000s, and the book became a kind of compendious guide for me, to every aspect of New York City’s history up to 1898.
In this new volume, Wallace writes about the unstoppable explosion of business activity and building after the 1898 consolidation of the five boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and The Bronx into an enormous single city. You learn everything important about what happened during that revolutionary re-purposing of the lower reaches of the Hudson River from 1898 to 1919.
I love the New York City we know now. I marvel at it. I also recognize that there is a downside to what happened during those early twentieth century years, a downside that regularly muscles its way onto the stage to this day. Wallace writes, “In 1856, Harper’sMonthly had declared that New York was notoriously the ‘least loved of our great cities. Why should it be loved as a city? It is never the same city for a dozen years together. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew.’ The velocity of transformation in the early twentieth century left the nineteenth century’s turnover rate looking turtlish. Henry James decried the city’s ‘restless renewals’ that dehistoricized its landscape and left its citizenry marooned in a provisional present. By 1913 critic James Huneker could argue: ‘In our town memories like rats are chased away by the ever-rising flood of progress. There is no room for ghosts or landmarks in New York.’”
It’s the same in 2018.
We’re in the midst of a similar change in San Francisco. Until recently, San Francisco was a manageable entity. Yes, there were the kinds of large, characterless skyscrapers that you find in New York City: the Bank of America’s leaden California headquarters at California and Kearny Streets and the U.S. government’s hideous Federal Building at Seventh and Mission, to name just two. Even somber religious institutions got involved, most particularly with the unintentionally comic Catholic Cathedral of Saint Mary of The Assumption at Geary and Gough Streets (about which I wrote extensively in my novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro.) But for the most part, charm remained the guiding design principle in this city.
Now, though, the downtown of San Francisco is being transformed with the neglect of good taste, the amazing speed, and the anti-human design that so distinguished the building of New York City between consolidation and, say, 1930. Everything is tall. The competition for the highest building has only just begun. The design principle seems to be that the top look exactly like the bottom, which itself looks like a shined-up cardboard crate that has windows in it. Money talks. Taste starves. The city grows tooth and nail towards no particular goal, other than getting that square-foot rental-rate higher than it was last year.
There are a few buildings that do wow the soul, if it wishes to be wowed by grand impersonal plainness. For example, we now have the new SalesForce building. Located at the corners of First, Mission and Fremont Streets, it looks to have been inspired by the “Gherkin” in London, a building named after the famous pickle. The San Francisco version has sixty-one stories, and is the only building that can be seen from offshore in the Pacific Ocean as you approach California’s coast. This despite the fact that a range of hills separates the coast from downtown. All off-color priapic references to this eyesore are appropriate.
And “The New Gherkin” is just a few doors from the Millennium Tower at 301 Mission Street, now called “The Leaning Tower of San Francisco.” A silver giant of no architectural interest, it was found in 2016 to be sinking. It is sixteen inches shorter than it was on completion, and is tilting toward the northwest, two inches at the base and six inches at the top. The city’s populace is waiting for it to fall, and in the meantime, numbers of people who bought the super-expensive residences inside are suing the developers. One wonders, if the shadows cast by these buildings now are so threatening to the light on the sidewalks below, imagine what they’ll be like when the Leaning Tower’s summit touches that of The New Gherkin.
There are many such buildings now almost everywhere you go in this downtown area. Walking especially through these many blocks, and most especially south of Market Street, is like crawling through the shadowy darknesses of the tallest tunnel on the west coast. San Francisco streets in this section of town are narrow, and there is little room between these structures for air, much less human frivolity, artistic wander, or heart-felt laughter. You can find very hip branding firms in San Francisco now, writing cute sales-generating copy for all these buildings. (I know about them because I have worked for a few of them.) There is much assured self-congratulation among the software engineers (seemingly everywhere in the streets) who write the code necessary for all the buildings and their attendant businesses. While walking around in the open air, they don’t have to restrict their exchanges with each other to lines of ones and zeroes. But to hear them talking with each other, you might prefer that they do so. They have, so far, no interest in the arts. They don’t seem to know that they exist.
If you want fresh air, bright light, and good views, go to Montana. But you had better get there quick, before all these people arrive there themselves. And for those of us who do admire charm…as they say in New York, “Forget about it!”
This piece appeared originally in HuffPost.
Mike McCone passed away a few months ago, a friend of mine whom I first met in 1966.
At the time, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sarawak, a state of Malaysia that is located in western Borneo. The nation of Malaysia was only a few years old, having been formed from the former British colonies of Sarawak, Sabah, Singapore and the Malaya peninsula. The Peace Corps was there to help the new government put together a primary school system in rural Sarawak villages where, previously, there had been no schools at all. My assignment was to find and train teachers for the upriver Iban tribal peoples and their new schools. I also trained those teachers and regularly delivered school supplies to them, upriver from the village of Betong.
It was hot all the time. I sweat terribly. The monsoons came and went. The situation was the most rural I have ever encountered, the rain forests upriver as thick and green as you can imagine. I traveled by boat to get to the upriver schools, and often by foot as well if I had to get from one school to the next by means other than river travel. I was always isolated when traveling. No one spoke English. This was duty for which you had to volunteer because of that isolation. I had a few American friends, other volunteers working in Betong. But when I was upriver, which was most of the time, I was alone.
Except for the Ibans, of course, who often found me to be a figure of comedy because I was so white and so large by comparison to them. They also assumed I was British. So I was able to take advantage of the fact that the Ibans liked the English, whom they felt had protected them during colonial times from what they resented as government over-reach on the part of the Malay-Muslim authorities. They also complained about Chinese over-reach on the part of every merchant they had ever met. The Ibans always paid me great respect, although I was just in my early twenties, and was certain that I did not deserve that respect.
Mike McCone was in charge of the Peace Corps effort in Sarawak at the time. He and his then-wife Nini were islands of conversational comfort for me during my occasional visits to the capital Kuching and when they would come to Betong to visit me and the other volunteers. But for the most part, I remained alone. I had learned enough of the Iban language to get along well. They liked me, and I liked them. I was up and down the river on a regular basis.
But, after a little more than a year and half, I went way off-kilter.
I was suddenly awake one night. It was, as usual, excessively warm and humid, and I was sleeping on a cotton mat on the floor of my house in Betong, protected by mosquito netting. There were so many mosquitos (all the time, and especially when the river was high and overflowing its banks) that the very noise they made interrupted sleep. There were millions of them.
Suddenly awake, I imagined killing myself by jumping out the window. This was foolish, because the window was only about ten feet above the ground. But it was the desire for immediate death that had taken hold of me, and I was more terrified than I had ever been in my life. I got up, put on some clothes, and walked as quickly as I could to the house of a fellow Peace Corps friend who lived on the other side of the village. When I got there, I heard recorded rock ‘n roll coming from inside the house. It was The Beatles. I raised a hand to pound on the door, seized by the need for help. But then I imagined my compatriot answering the door, and my attacking him as though to kill him. I held back, and retreated to the pathway before his house. I never saw that fellow again.
I suffered through the night, seated beneath my mosquito netting and talking myself out of suicide. I had only enough money the next morning to get on the local bus that would take me to the major town of Simanggang, two or three hours away. I had to get to Kuching and Mike, for help.
The entire way to Simanggang, I was approached by Ibans wanting to talk to the young Englishman. Throughout that journey, I imagined taking the parang knife (a de rigueur tool for any Iban walking through the woods or traveling cross-country) from the particular Iban who so wanted to speak with me, and attacking him with it. His friends would then attack me, I imagined, and kill me, a consummation to be wished. Here too, I was able to keep myself contained, although at quite difficult cost to my emotional paralysis.
Finally, the bus arrived in Simanggang, at the central market. I was out of money, and had no idea how I could possibly get to Kuching. But literally as I stepped from the bus, I spotted Mike and Nini McCone, who were visiting Peace Corps volunteers in that town. My mind was racing with continuing electric images of self-destruction. I was entirely beset by terror.
Mike saw this right away, and he took me to a Chinese tea shop in the market. (Nini apparently realized the gravity of the situation, and left me and Mike alone to sort it out.) Over tea, I told him what was happening. Years later, he told me that he was extremely alarmed, enough to realize that I had to get to the American medical team in Kuching immediately. He shoved money into my hands and escorted me to the Chinese taxi station next to the market. At the time, the road to Kuching was gravel the entire way, and there were only four taxis in all of Simanggang. I protested that I could take the bus. But Mike pushed me into the car, still talking with me, still counseling me. He told the driver, who spoke some English, that he was to take me directly to Peace Corps headquarters in Kuching. I later found out that Mike then went to the government offices in Simanggang (where, he knew, they had a British radio telephone, there being no regular phone system in Sarawak at that time) and, shouting down the clerk who didn’t want to let him use the phone, he demanded to speak with the district officer. Mike then phoned the head Peace Corps physician and told him about my difficulties.
Still bedeviled by images of self-wounding, I got to Kuching and safety. Ultimately, I was flown back to the U.S., and Mike accompanied me on the flight. We’ve been friends ever since.
On those occasions when I thanked him for what he did, he always said that he was only doing what anyone would have done under similar circumstances. Maybe so, but I was lost, and I believe to this day that Mike saved my life.
Terence Clarke is the director of publishing at Astor & Lenox. His new story collection is titled New York. This piece was first published in HuffPost.
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.
“This is the voice of Vietnam Broadcasting from Hanoi, capitol of the Democratic republic of Vietnam.”
I fingered the dial of my battery-fueled short-wave radio, to try to get rid of the recurring smatterings of static. In a shack on stilts, up from the coast of the South China Sea, on the Skrang River in Sarawak, Borneo in 1966, I had little to choose from for western entertainment.
But Hanoi Hannah played the best rock ‘n roll of any station I could reach, so I listened to her as often as I could. Atmospheric conditions often intruded. Heavy monsoon rain against the tin roof of my shack rendered the music sometimes un-hearable. I grew tired of Hannah’s lectures about impending American military disaster, or her lists of names of crew members of arriving U.S. military ships to Vietnamese harbors. They were like long sermons or longer laundry lists, and very boring, offered in a monochromatic drone. The music, though, made listening to her wonderful. I understood that American troops in Vietnam listened to her as well, admiring the music, but laughing at the commentary. As exhortations go, I suspect hers were unsuccessful.
But I heard my first Jefferson Airplane recording on Hannah’s show, a band that was part of an extraordinary flowering of new rock ‘n roll in the U.S. I was missing the whole thing, a volunteer with the Peace Corps in a Sarawak government rubber plantation for tribal Sea Dayak refugees who had been displaced by a war being fought between Malaysia and Indonesia. Hannah even knew that the Jefferson Airplane were from San Francisco, thus making me wish to be there, to see them live.
But the short wave was my only real connection to the States at the time, other than the letters that I exchanged with my parents and grandparents, which my mother saved and I still have.
The United States was involved in what indeed became a disastrous defeat in Vietnam. I well remember Hannah’s charming delivery: “Defect, G.I. It is a very good idea for you to desert a sinking ship. Otherwise your army will leave you behind. It will not return to save you.”
I knew a few people who had gone to Vietnam in the military. But at the time they were still there, and I had no opportunity to speak with them about what was happening. The one time I had such an opportunity was in a bar in Kuala Lumpur on the Malayan peninsula. It was a rest and relaxation stop for U.S. Marines serving in Vietnam. I was in the place one night with Peace Corps friends, and everyone there except for the Chinese barmen, the women (all of whom were Asians), and us three white boys, was a black Marine. At first we were treated with complete indifference. I suspect that, at first, that was because we were white, and obviously out of place. But once I had been asked by one of the Marines who we were, interest in our presence heightened.
“What is this Peace Corps s**t?” one of the Marines asked me.
I explained what we were doing, and he immediately asked why was the CIA in Malaysia. The Peace Corps had no relationship with the CIA, but my protestation carried little weight. John (the Marine) called a few of his buddies to our table, and they too suspected us of being part of the U.S. spy network. But I wanted to talk with them about Vietnam, and eventually my questions brought out what was to be my first ever understanding of what that war was actually requiring of these men. Not again until I first read the manuscript of a book by H. Ward Trueblood titled A Surgeon’s War (which my publishing house Astor & Lenox put out in 2016) was I to hear such graphic descriptions of war wounds, fear in war, and the kind of derring do that such fear can cause in those fighting the war. These Marines had lost several friends. They were all tired, and all very angry. There being nothing to do about their plight, they were simply going through their few days in Kuala Lumpur before returning to the jungles, the padi, the monsoon, the bugs and, as one of the Marines put it, “the foolishness, man. The foolishness.”
I asked about Hanoi Hannah, and all these men laughed. “She don’t play no black music,” one of the Marines, a very young man who had only been listening to us, said in response. “She’s as racist as all you white folks.”
So I returned to my shack and turned on Hanoi Hannah again. The Marine was right. Hannah was a fan of white rock n’ roll. Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and all the others. Maybe there was an occasional Otis Redding or some such. But I don’t think so.
I then understood the tiredness of those Marines, and their ultimate reluctance to carry on much of a conversation with us. That had something to do with being tired, for sure, but I suspect it had a lot more to do with deeply felt rage.
For another look at Terence Clarke’s time in Sarawak, see “Borneo” in HuffPost. Clarke’s Sarawak novels, The Day Nothing Happened and The King of Rumah Nadai, originally published in the 1980s, will be republished in 2018. His new story collection, New York, comes out this month.
In Webster’s, the definition of the phrase “to disrupt” is as follows: “to drastically alter or destroy the structure of something, as in ‘alcohol can disrupt the chromosomes of an unfertilized egg.’” Synonyms are words like these: distort, damage, buckle, and warp.
It happens that one of the most important phrases used to describe current business innovation is this same “to disrupt.” Anyone who knows of the aggressive use of new business ideas to destroy the purveyors of competitive ideas, or more importantly to enable the ruinous takeovers of new inventive companies by others for the purpose of appropriating technologies that they themselves did not have the imagination to invent, will recognize the term “to disrupt.” It’s often a matter of what is called “corporate consolidation,” a bland-enough term, one would think. Harmless. Sensible. The disruption involved, though, comes about with a satisfied grumble of self-congratulation and triumph from those in senior management who have destroyed something else for their own benefit.
But disruption does no one any good when it comes to the advancement of ideas and of the heart. All it does is destroy. Yes, you get to pump up your chest when you’ve gotten rid of available fresh thinking and imagination. But because there is little attention given to cooperative back and forth, the sharing of ideas, or the furtherance of the human soul, disruption is a rejection of that soul and a thumbing of the nose at it.
This is also, of course, a distinctly male undertaking. And although the phrase “to disrupt” is the current business terminology of choice, it comes from a very traditional idea: the development of monopolies, trusts, and so on. Fascist governments and the like. We even now have a disruption of the entire weather system, thanks to industrial aggressiveness and wholesale disinterest on the part of certain current governments in a proven scientific truth.
Disruption diminishes us. We are less human, less thoughtful, less innovative when it takes place because it serves the interest only of the disruptor. And these days, disruption seems to be a form of universal truth, accepted at most levels of business society. Opportunities for it are to be sought out and realized. So, your having succeeded in disrupting the competition is an accomplishment of great value, for which congratulation is in order. You are celebrated when you have destroyed them. You will be ushered into some hall of fame or other for having done that. You are the man of the hour, and perhaps one day you’ll run for president, and disrupt democracy.
“Eddy, life’s too short, man.” Ernesto laid his glasses on the desk and rested the side of his head on his right palm, looking out the window.
He took in a breath as Eddy nattered a reply. This was the second gig in a month that Ernesto had gotten for Eddy y Los Locos to which the band had arrived late. This time, Eddy explained, the Express Passenger broke down. The Express Passenger was an aging Chevrolet van, quite used, from Eddy’s cousin Lester Bedoya in Long Island City, which the band’s rising promise had allowed them to buy. They had removed all the seats in order to carry the band’s equipment, Eddy at the wheel. The other musicians, for whom there was no room in the van, would arrive by subway. The previous excuse, a month before, was that the Siena had broken down. The Siena was an even older Toyota vehicle that the band had named El Barco de Los Locos, also purchased from Lester. It too had no seats.
At least on this second occasion, just the night before, the band had arrived, although an hour late. The first time, the band had not shown up at all, and Eddy had actually traded blows with the club owner the next day, on a Staten Island street corner, who had insulted him for being Puerto Rican. This time, the owner of the restaurant/bar in Brooklyn, a friend of Ernesto’s father from Argentina, shorted the band on its money because of their tardiness—“I had to do bird whistles, Eddy!”—and the other guys in the band escorted Eddy out of the place after the gig, so that he wouldn’t threaten the Argentine as well.
The musicians in the band were terrific, Eddy himself a timbales player of real note even though he was only 19. But he had taken over the management of the band as well, from Joe Corteza, the pianist who had his head on straight, had two kids, no drug issues, and could organize the band well enough to get them to gigs on time. Eddy had recently fired Joe, jealous of the band’s dependence upon the older man’s more steady demeanor, and the fortunes of Eddy y Los Locos were now waning.
During Eddy’s explanation, Ernesto surveyed West 23rd Street and the buildings across the way. His small talent-booking office was on the fourth floor of an old factory building now filled with art galleries, like almost all the buildings on this stretch of 23rd. It was now a very posh and self-important neighborhood. Comely, aggressively young, artfully dressed women walked around everywhere, a daily excitement for the 26 year-old Ernesto. The fashionable bohemian look of the many gallery visitors belied the clear poverty of the occasional artist seen sneaking around. The High Line was just a block away, and it symbolized for Ernesto the neighborhood’s change. Now The High Line was charming, safe and vernal, the talk of touristic Manhattan. He remembered it from his childhood as a heroin-beset disgrace, thirty feet up.
Eddy’s rambling litany of excuses caused Ernesto’s mind to wander, and he had a sudden, affectionate recollection.
As a small child 20 years ago, he had often visited this same building, which had a different purpose then. His father Cacho Goyeneche was the daytime shop foreman of a Post Office processing plant on the fourth floor. Little Ernesto loved the sound of the loose planking when he would walk across the shop floor on weekends, hand in hand with his father, when the machinery was silent. Cacho would have extra paperwork to do, and would bring Ernesto along for company. It was a sound that child and father both enjoyed, especially when Ernesto was challenged by his father to find the squeakiest floor plank of them all. There were thousands of thick planks, all of them many years old, most of them slivered along the edges, thick, warped and poorly painted.
“Che chico, look around. You’ll find it.” His father would come out of the office now and then, to supervise the search. With so many loose planks, the quest was complicated and, for the boy, serious fun. Ernesto could never be sure which was the loosest. The day Ernesto finally found The Number One Plank, as Cacho called it, Cacho brought him back to the office, sat him down across the desk, and brought an envelope from a desk drawer. Ernesto tore it open and found a paper sticker with an illustration of The Virgin Mary on it, like the ones they gave out to the best students every Friday at Saint Edmund’s School in Queens, where Ernesto was in the first grade. The Virgin smiled, looking down dreamily from a swirling cloud. There were also two dollars in the envelope.
“You deserve it, hijo.”
Ernesto ran around the desk and hugged his father. He pocketed the two dollars and told Cacho that he would stick the sticker onto his bedroom mirror. Ernesto still had the mirror, in his own apartment. While The Virgin Mary was badly faded, and parts of the paper had fallen away at the edges, She still held a kind of floating, deteriorated court over Ernesto’s bedroom.
During the week, millions of pieces of paper, envelopes, letters, personal packages, messages from home, messages to home, greeting cards, birthdays cards and every other sort of mailed item swirled, were processed and flew through all the Post Office machinery, Monday through Friday. They were eventually brought together in neat, paper-banded groupings that were then dumped into large canvas mailing bags. The noise in the shop made speech almost impossible. There was such a clattering metronomic racket everywhere that, of course, Ernesto could not actually hear the squeak of The Number One Plank when he visited during the week. But this was another order of thrilling excitement for the boy. Even in such chaos, his hand held tightly by his father so that he would not wander toward the dangerous machinery, he could feel the press of the loose plank against the bottom of his shoe and, so, knew that it was squeaking. The sound itself was a secret…knowable, the little boy thought, only to his father and himself. Ernesto had often thought since then that no memory could be so pedestrian, yet so deeply evocative of the feelings he had for his father.
His father, whom he loved for the way he danced and, especially, the way he dressed when he danced—the perfectly ironed white dress-shirt, the jet-black silk necktie and just as black double-breasted suit, the black suede dance shoes with suede soles, his straight black hair laid flat against his skull with shiny Pomade—was Ernesto’s connection to his aunts, uncles and cousins back in Buenos Aires. He was the man who had begun Ernesto’s journey toward becoming a stellar asador, noted especially for his rosemary lamb, who gave Ernesto more than a dozen recipes for chimichurri, the best being the one that contained cilantro and therefore was “no chimichurri at all, hijo,” because no such vegetable was grown in all of Argentina. His father was the first to teach Ernesto to dance tango, showing him how to essay multiple agujas, amagues and boleos with rough, legible grace. Cacho was noted especially by the few actual professional tangueros in New York for his milonguero abilities. This rare accolade, in 1993 when the boy was 8 years old and attending his first summer milongas in a patio behind an apartment house in Queens, made Ernesto feel singularly honored as his father led him through the dance. Cacho…Ernesto’s father, who died in Buenos Aires while visiting a dying cousin, when Ernesto was nine.
Recalling this, Ernesto felt his eyes turning to liquid. Eddy didn’t notice, and kept talking.
The cousin was Roberto Goyeneche, and Ernesto’s father had at least been able to visit this cherished, famous relative—one of the greatest ever singers of Argentine tango—before Roberto died in 1994. Roberto was followed quickly by Cacho himself, who had a heart attack the day after the singer’s funeral. The last memory that Ernesto had of his father was that of laying his forehead against the side of Cacho’s closed coffin, returned to New York City from Buenos Aires. Ernesto’s mother Geraldín’s right hand patted the back of his head, caressing the boy.
Cacho Goyeneche had often reminisced about his cousin Roberto—known as “Polaco” because of his pale skin and his skinniness—especially when he and Ernesto would listen to the recording Polaco made of the tango “Muchacho”, about a little boy who does not yet know the sadness of losing love, or what would come to him when he finally found love.
“Children,” his father would say. “They know so little, Ernesto…especially about love.” When he learned that Cacho was dead, Ernesto knew that his father had been wrong about that.
A few weeks after the news, Geraldín sat with Ernesto on the couch in their living room. She leaned far forward and pressed the palms of her hands against her eyes. She had an opened letter in her right hand. She lay it on her lap and read from it, a description by her sister-in-law of how Cacho had died. “We were dancing a tango, in Uncle Timo’s house, for the memory of Polaco. Cacho was always so good at tango. And fifteen minutes later he was gone, too. So alive in one moment…and the next, his soul suddenly vanished. ¡Ay Geraldín…!” His aunt had been unable to complete the sentence. Ernesto laid his head against his mother’s as she crumpled a corner of the letter. He wished to run from this duty. There should be no need for it. He wished his father alive, to take his wife into his arms, to dance.
A priest eulogized Cacho in Saint Edmund’s parish church. Ernesto himself spoke at the funeral, but could not finish. Now, years later, still looking out his office window, still muttering imprecations at Eddy y Los Locos, Ernesto recalled a visit to their house by Polaco himself, on tour from Argentina, and a musician friend. This was the man who had written Cacho’s favorite song, an immortal tango about his own father’s death entitled “Adios Nonino”. The little boy, five years old at the time, was stunned by his father’s surprised, noisy amazement when the other musician came in the front door of the house behind the celebratory, much-welcomed Polaco.
“Maestro Astor,” Cacho whispered, shaking his head and taking Astor into his arms. “Welcome!” He turned toward Ernesto. “¡Chico! ¡Imagináte! Astor Piazzolla!”
Cacho had to explain to the boy who Astor was, and when Polaco and Astor stayed for lunch—spaghetti al limón y crema, a salad of tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and sweet basil, salted, peppered and sprinkled with olive oil, and a great large loaf of Italian bread that they all broke up with their hands—Astor asked that the child sit next to him. He accepted a hunk of bread with a large clod of butter on it that Ernesto had constructed for him. Polaco and Astor both complimented Geraldín’s rustic cooking, especially the quality of freshness of her home-grown tomatoes, which, in Astor’s words, “leant music to this salad, señora.” Later in the afternoon, Cacho described that particular Saturday as the most important day in his life. “Except, of course, the day you were born, chico,” his father hurried to say to the un-offended, equally happy Ernesto.
Once he was able to get Eddy off the phone, Ernesto sat silently as he recalled his father sitting in his office in the processing plant, on the following Monday afternoon, in a white shirt and tie, looking out the window onto the shop floor. Ernesto and Geraldín were visiting, having ridden into Manhattan on the E train. Ernesto, as always, was amazed by the rush of so many pieces of paper through so much cockeyed machinery.
“Each of those envelopes contains something, no, Ernesto?” Cacho said. “They’re like tangos, no? Like Astor’s tangos. Each one with some surprise. With a secret, a heart of some kind.” He laughed. “Secretos.” His thin, dark face broadened with a smile. “Secrets, eh? ¿No te rompen la cabeza? That’s like saying in English…like…something like ’Don’t they drive your heart crazy?’”
Because of the mystery of it, the boy had always cherished the question, and still did.
Terence Clarke’s new book, a story collection titled New York, will be published this year.
I read David Copperfield as a student in 1970, and until recently the single detail that I remembered from it was that of Uriah Heep’s handshake. Heep is a law clerk working for a kindly attorney named Wickfield, who has just taken over the very young David’s care. The boy has struggled through a years’ long, brilliantly described journey to free himself from the clutches of his cold, distant stepfather Edward Murdstone and Mr. Murdstone’s horrid sister. David is overjoyed by his new good fortune with Mr. Wickfield. But he does have to tend with Uriah Heep: “Oh, what a clammy hand his was! as ghostly to the touch as to the sight! I rubbed mine afterwards, to warm it, and to rub his off.” Later, David mentions the trail of Uriah’s sweat across the page as he traces with one finger what he is reading. I could imagine the very paper disintegrating with the destructive acid contained in that finger’s touch.
I just finished reading David Copperfield once again, and there is more to it—a great, almost insurmountable deal more—than Uriah Heep’s perspiration. Young David has lost both parents, attended school, been abandoned and traveled alone and homeless through a vast English countryside. He has been treated sometimes badly, sometimes well by many and various people, he has entered the legal field, fallen in love more than once, gained, lost and regained many friendships, and been forced to deal with terrible people, who have had significant influence over his affairs, many times.
All the while, his adventures have been described by a fully adult David Copperfield, working alone with pen and paper on this autobiographical manuscript, telling the tale of his youth. Copperfield frequently interrupts the flow of the tale, to cogitate on what the events he has been describing from those years meant to his emotional development and his ultimate personal character. If ever there were an understanding witness to the boy David’s travails and difficulties, this older man Copperfield is surely that. When we are listening to his observations, told many years after the fact, he makes those observations with an always-clear eye, contemplative feeling, and compassion.
There is a distinct difference between this memoirist’s adult reflective style, and that which he employs to describe the boy David’s fractious growing up. The older Copperfield is calm and reflective. The younger David (who, when not in the arms of the few who really love him, is always on the run or being challenged, beaten, rejected, fooled by someone or relieved of his few pennies) is a seriously threatened, sweet-minded naïf (although, as he grows older, he eventually becomes wiser.)
On this new reading, I was almost incapable of following David’s youthful peregrinations in a calm state of mind. He is in some kind of crisis almost always, and the language is so full of movement, surprise, hurry and abrupt contemplation that even my breathing was affected by my reading. To use the old phrase, I could not put the book down, and until I started writing this piece, I could not understand what the actual writer Charles Dickens had done to make the book so electrifying to me.
But now I know.
The clue is that everything in Dickens’s writing pulses with movement. All of the detail that seeps from the end of his pen shimmers. This is so even when the simplest, most pedestrian every-day object is being described. Clothing, papers piled on a desk, a woman’s sleeping cap, the appearance of something as simple as the whiskers on a man’s’s face…nothing escapes Dickens’s attention and his wish for a kind of completion and humor that the reader, trying breathlessly to keep up, can not possibly expect before reading it. All, whether good for young David or ill, moves. Everything steps back and forth, looks to the side, reflects constantly changing light and color, and beats with life. The language Dickens selects describes in phenomenal detail, throughout the novel, the character being described, the place being visited, the vista being observed, in ways in which nothing is static. Everything is excited and, in its language, dancing.
For example, after a few hundred pages, we meet a certain Mr. Spenlow, who is considering training young David to become a proctor, a kind of sub-lawyer in the court system in London. Mr. Spenlow himself is not a central character, although his daughter Dora later does have a deep effect on young David’s emotions. But Dickens, in the paragraph in which he first brings Mr. Spenlow on stage, celebrates the very unusual manner and dress of this minor man, thus making him unforgettable. When I recall that Spenlow is just one of many, many characters described with such originality, I shake my head with wonder at the depth of Dickens’s ability.
“Mr. Spenlow, in a black gown trimmed with white fur, came hurrying in, taking off his hat as he came. He was a little light-haired gentleman, with undeniable boots, and the stiffest of white cravats and shirt-collars. He was buttoned up, mighty trim and tight, and must have taken a great deal of pains with his whiskers, which were accurately curled. His gold watch-chain was so massive, that a fancy came across me, that he ought to have a sinewy golden arm, to draw it out with, like those which are put up over the goldbeaters’ shops. He was got up with such care, and was so stiff, that he could hardly bend himself; being obliged, when he glanced at some papers on his desk, after sitting down in his chair, to move his whole body, from the bottom of his spine, like (the puppet character) Punch.”
With this passage, my eye was going over Spenlow so quickly, the author Dickens’s attention to the details of Spenlow’s appearance so hurriedly provided and then moved from, left behind for the next detail and then the next…and with such ravishing color and noisy precision…that I was a couple of paragraphs further along before I realized the wondrous manner in which Spenlow had been described. I stopped and went back. I have had to calm myself, reading this novel, so that I could enjoy what I was reading while I was reading it. But on dozens of occasions, I was so driven on nonetheless to the next event by the power of Dickens’s language that I had to go back, to read this or that sequence again.
I loved having to do so.
Terence Clarke is writing a new novel—The Splendid City—that has Pablo Neruda as its central character. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.