On that day in 1994 I didn’t know how to walk.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Nora Olivera stepped toward one of the chairs at the edge of the practice room, before a large mirror. She sat down and crossed her legs. I felt vulnerable before her, a laughable figure wet with sweat.
I could not see how I would ever achieve the sensuality in this tango dance that I had seen others achieve. That was completely out of the question, so remote a possibility that it seemed to have disappeared even before it had appeared, especially in view of the fact that I did not know how to walk.
(Nora Olivera and Edward Neale)
“Poeta,” Nora said. She looked at me with a smile of great regard, as though I might actually have a bit of talent. “You walk like the English.”
I turned away, gesturing into the air.
“Wait!” she said. “Don’t get me wrong. I have respect for the English.” She placed an index finger below her right eye and looked up at me with comic sincerity. This conversation was taking place 12 years or so after the Malvinas (or Falklands) War between Argentina and Great Britain. “They nice people.”
She stood and stepped out to the middle of the practice room. She positioned herself with her feet apart, her shoulders slightly hunched, her head hanging a bit forward. Her black hair surrounded her head and hung down from it like ringlets of obsidian.
“And this is how they walk,” she said.
Nora took several steps, her feet a few inches apart from each other as she moved. There was little fluidity in her walk. She plodded like the Tin Woodsman stiff with rust.
“You see? The Industrial Revolution, yes?”
“Nora . . .” I whispered, amused by her characterization of my gait.
“But now, when you walk like this…”
She suddenly grew liquid, and she sauntered forward, her knees and ankles lightly brushing each other. There was something about her feet, the way that, as one passed the other in mid step, they appeared like two doves caressing each other in flight. Her shoulders moved as sensuously, her arms held up slightly, but sinuously, so that her erect head, that looked aside just now with a smile on the lips… so that she appeared to be heading for an unusually pleasureful union of some kind — just where, no one knew – some sensual bower, some assignation.
“You see?” Nora asked, coming to a halt.
“Yes. But what do I see?” I asked.
Nora’s eyes opened wide. “¡Che, Buenos Aires!” she said, gesturing at the ceiling. She turned back toward the mirror, adjusted her hair, and then smiled at herself. “And Buenos Aires, poeta, is tango.”
Viewed from outside, tango does not necessarily seem so all-involving. It is a slow, complicated walk by two people in each others’ arms. We are simply dancing, and often — except for those true masters like Nora and her husband Edward Neale — without distinction, to incredibly sad music. But when you are engaged with the person dancing with you, when you can feel her in your arms and can feel the feline contracting and stretching of her muscles, the intensity of her in your embrace, so private an embrace…
So that day in 1994, Nora began teaching me how to walk.
“You have a hallway?”
I was living in a long Victorian apartment in San Francisco, on the second floor. There was a hallway that ran the entire length of the apartment, the living room at one end, the kitchen at the other. Two bedrooms, a bathroom and a laundry room were connected to the hallway at various intervals. A Turkish rug runner ran the length of it. It could be rolled up, so that the hardwood beneath could be revealed.
I described the hallway for Nora.
“Good.” She surveyed me. “You have a belt?”
“Good. You take that belt from your pants and put it around your knees.”
“No! In the hallway!” Nora grinned. “You take the belt and you tighten it around your knees, so that they are always together.” She began walking. “Then, put on the music. Something slow. Slow Pugliese. Slow Di Sarli.”
Her steps were exaggerated but nonetheless very stylish. Her knees remained tightly together, and she proceeded in a straight line across the floor.
“This way, you’ll learn how to walk,” she said. “You can learn it in many other ways. And the ability you have…I’ll teach you. But this way you learn it quick.”
I was peeved. Maybe defeated.
“You want to get around in Buenos Aires, poeta,” she said, “this is the way you do it.”
So, that evening I put the belt around my knees. I hopped over to the stereo and put on the tango “Gallo Ciego”. Hopping back to the beginning of the hallway, I started walking and fell down.
The music swirled. I gathered myself up to my hands and knees. I helped myself to my feet by grabbing the knob of the door that led to the kitchen. The bandoneon in the recording sounded like a lascivious church organ. I began walking again, and fell again.
The music continued. I felt Nora’s voice. I felt her kindness. Che, I felt Buenos Aires! If I could find that walk, I could maybe find tango.
I took the doorknob again, pulled myself to my feet, and began walking. Slowly at first. Very clumsily. I stumbled once or twice more. But my knees were together. Then, surprisingly, almost as if naturally, my ankles brushed each other as I ascended the length of the hallway, two very clumsy doves.
I have studied twice a week with Nora since that day in 1994, and I can assure you that I now know how to walk.
Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Splendid City, will be published in early 2019.
It’s a given that Argentine tango has a significant influence on contemporary music around the world. Most of the musicians who are responsible for that are themselves exclusively Argentine. There have been few notable tangueros who were not born in that country.
Among those groups in which non-Argentines do play a significant role is Trio Garufa, based in San Francisco. While their co-founder and fine guitarist Guillermo García hales from the Argentine city of Bahia Blanca, their bassist Sascha Jacobson is an American who is renowned for his work in several genres of music, from jazz to contemporary classical to, of course, tango. The third member of the group is bandoneonista Adrian Jost who, though born in Switzerland, received his master’s degree in electrical engineering and music technology from Northwestern University, and is the other co-founder of Trio Garufa.
Adrian is superb on his instrument. He has a complete understanding of tango’s unique underlying rhythms, and plays his bandoneon with exceptional drive and humor as well as with a real respect for tango’s underlying heart, which is famously large. He brings authentic emotional authority to the music that is rare among players who do not come originally from Argentina.
At the moment, Adrian is playing with one Argentine who exemplifies that authority, the pianist Pablo Estigarríbia. One of the most noted younger Argentine players, arrangers, and composers of tango, Pablo has made several recordings (one of which, Tangos para piano, was the recipient a few years ago of the Premio Gardel, the most prestigious award offered by the Argentine recording industry. His latest collection, with legendary singer María Graña, has been nominated for a Gardel this year.)
Adrian makes clear why he so enjoys playing with Pablo. “It’s a privilege for me. He’s such an accomplished and creative tango pianist…definitely a virtuoso. And his recordings are not just recordings. Anyone can make a recording, but his albums and projects are revered by his contemporaries.”
Pablo and Adrian are unusual as tango musicians, in that both are devotees of the dance as well as the music. Each was initiated into the subtleties of tango through their dancing of it. “Most of the professional tango musicians I know don’t dance,” Pablo says. “But of course one of the most direct ways of learning the intricacies of rhythm in tango is to get out on the floor.” This was so important a revelation to Adrian that, when he and Guillermo García of Trio Garufa first met the bassist Sascha Jacobson, they realized that, although a first-rate musician, Sascha didn’t yet have the dynamics of tango, the surge of it, in his blood. So they told him to go out and learn the dance. If you hear Sascha play tango now, you realize how good that advice was.
Adrian and Pablo were both in Buenos Aires recently, and spent an evening over pizza with the virtuoso bandoneonista Victor Lavallen. Victor was a principal arranger for many years for Osvaldo Pugliese, and is something of a tango immortal himself in Buenos Aires. (Pablo and Victor, joined by bassist Horacio Cabarcos, have collaborated on the recording De Menor a Mayor.) Riding in a taxi afterwards, Adrian and Pablo decided to play together, and sealed the deal with a handshake.
Adrian is quite specific in his reason for wanting to play with Pablo. “It’s the attention to detail in his music,” he says. “Pablo introduces new elements to his tango, but it remains connected to and deeply rooted in the tradition of tango. Nevertheless his tango is very much his own.”
Pablo is indeed a stickler for precision in the music, and is devoted to practice and rehearsal. “And that’s one thing I like especially about Adrian. He’s Swiss. So he practices. He’s always on time to a rehearsal, which you can’t say is the case with most Argentine musicians. Above all, he knows tango and what makes it work. He loves the music that I love, and I love the music that he does.” The list of composers and musicians the two men admire includes classic tangueros from the Golden Age of the 1940s and 50s (Troilo, Pugliese, et. al.) as well as players on the contemporary scene in Buenos Aires, and even some concert-stage composers and players, most notably, of course, Astor Piazzolla.
There is often a gulf in taste between those musicians that specialize in traditional tango, and play principally for the dance in milongas, and those concert-stage musicians who may be more classically trained, but who still care for the tango form. “Concert musicians don’t often do milongas, because of their training,” Pablo says. “And milonga players often feel that all that classicism is way too restrictive.” He thinks that this need not be the case. “You’ll find it unusual that Adrian and I do both concerts and milongas. Because we feel that, in the end, tango is a dance. It can have all the subtleties that a classical training can bring to it, but it is always danceable.”
At first, their coming together as a duo featured an unusual practice schedule. “It was a real debut experience for me,” Adrian says. A large smile appears. “At first, I thought it was crazy. We had trouble rehearsing because I was in San Francisco, and Pablo was in Buenos Aires. So he would harmonize a tango, and then send audio to me of the piano by itself, as well as the written score. I’d figure out the bandoneon part, and send back audio and ideas for Pablo to critique.”
Pablo laughs with this description. “Yes, I believe it was the first series of rehearsals in the history of music to be conducted on ‘WhatsApp.’”
Pablo and Adrian are concertizing this month on the west coast of the United States. They are in the planning stages for their first recording together.
Terence Clarke’s essay “Fathers, Sons, and Seizures” was published last month. A new novel, The Splendid City, is based on a life-threatening event in the life of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. It comes out early next year.
This following is the opening gambit of an essay I’ve written about my father, my son, and me. They both have suffered from a very difficult affliction, which I have witnessed. The essay is titled “Fathers, Sons & Seizures.”
I had told A. the story of my son Brennan, how it is that his unrelenting epilepsy and severe learning disabilities have always reminded me of my father Hank’s infirmities, who had himself died in the middle of an epileptic seizure in January 1971. Hank’s illness had sickened his mind as well in the last ten years of his life. His speech had been reduced to the simplest of expressions. He said the same things over and over, with occasional long pauses between utterances, and so was very similar to how Brennan is now.
Their epilepsies are not related genetically. My father’s seizures were caused by a slow-growing brain tumor, while my son’s have no demonstrable cause of any kind. Nonetheless, the symptoms of their epilepsies are, to me, almost alarmingly similar, as are the two men themselves. They look so much alike that my son appears to me as a kind of copy of my father, the way my father appeared as a young man in his twenties in old photos. And they are most alike in how they are afflicted. The leaden talk. The long monologues. The repetition. I am frustrated by my son in the same ways I was frustrated by my father. Angered by them similarly. Crazed by them similarly. And I recognize how important I am to my son, and how my father so insistently sought my approval by raining down so much approval on me. The fact that neither man really knows much about me, or could know much, occasionally deadens my feelings for myself and for what I feel I must do to understand the two of them properly.
When I speak with Brennan now, twenty-six years after the death of my father, I realize that he was born less than a year after my father died, and that when he is attempting to tell me a personal anecdote of some kind—his personal story—it is then that he sounds most like my father.
I tell A. all this and, silent in the gloom of the car, she looks out into the surrounding darkness.
“Well, it’s clear to me,” she says abruptly. “Your son is your father, that’s all, come back to tell you what you missed.”
“What did I miss?”
“The truth about yourself.”
Terence Clarke’s latest book is a story collection titled New York. Kirkus Reviews says of it, ““Tales like these feel like new takes on classic stories of New York by Salinger or Capote—fine company, all in all.”
The tweet is an inadequate vehicle for the forming of political strategies, foreign involvements, and important documents of state. Some may say that I’m being a fuddy-duddy about this, but for those who find The Gettysburg Address better than the average tweet coming from the White House these days, I hope my caution is deemed wise. I think the world has been enriched by the statements of so many presidents and others, like Christ, Abraham Lincoln, The Buddha, Edith Wharton, John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Jane Austen and the many others who preceded the founding of Twitter.
I have difficulty imagining what a tweet from Prime Minister Churchill during the Battle of Britain might have been like, although I suspect that, given his intelligence and amazing ability for language, his would have been better than the ones we’re getting now from, well, Our Current Leader. Even Churchill would have trouble fitting the story he tells in his six-volume The Second World War into two hundred eighty characters. But to be fair, no tweet from Our Current Leader could be expanded into a six-volume history of a world-involving military conflict that resulted in a re-ordering of the planet at the expense of countless millions of people killed. I suspect the president would grow weary of the effort after, maybe…two hundred three characters? Two hundred seven?
But speaking of The Gettysburg Address, maybe he would do better with a speech like that. It contains, after all, just two hundred seventy-two words, which would fit quite nicely into the tweet format, and offer the president a vehicle he could…that he could…. But that’s two hundred eighty characters, isn’t it? So, even with his ability to explain politics and diplomacy with a sneering claim of personal success or an off-color remark about the size of his hands or the size of his button (all created for the benefit and understanding of the white uneducated) he would still have trouble being as eloquent as Abraham Lincoln.
He could save space though by shortening that phrase “Four score and seven years ago” to “Eighty-seven years ago.” He probably doesn’t know what a “score” is (in this context, anyway.) Maybe he doesn’t even have the experience to know what that other kind of score is—the one he uses when speaking of women. Besides which, “eighty-seven years ago” doesn’t have quite the lilt, does it?
This piece first appeared in HuffPost.
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.