Are you – Nobody – too?
I Who Have Been So Many Men. He opens his eyes in the dark, and hearing nothing but silence, he cannot tell where he is, or the time, the day, the year, the period of his life. Presently he has no name, no face and no biography. There is no clear boundary in his mind between sleep and waking, just as there is none between his shadowy limbs and the still black shapes in the room or the very darkness of the air. He could be in Madrid, in London, in Paris or in Lisbon. He could be waking up from a drunken stupor or an opium dream in a hovel crammed with books, manuscripts and old newspapers somewhere in Edinburgh; or on a tavern floor in Baltimore, his mouth pressed against the filthy boards, a thread of blood or spittle at the corner of his lips. He may be opening his eyes in a room of whitewashed walls inside a boarding house in Ibiza or in Portbou. As it grows brighter, it will be possible to tell if the sky in the window is a flat gray, which could mean Paris in the winter or Berlin. As the first morning sounds become audible, they will provide him with further clues. The scrape of a shovel on the sidewalk will reveal that he is in New York, where it snowed all night and the doormen are busy opening paths outside their buildings. Or he may hear the bell on the watchtower, and then the one that rings the hours in the cathedral, and almost simultaneously the low tones of the Chancery clock. Then he would be in Granada, in an old house somewhere in the Albaicín.
The Way You Move Can Say a Lot about You. He rose before dawn because today is the day of the journey. He had set an alarm to be safe, but there was no need. Occasionally, during the night, he surfaced from sleep and glanced at the red numbers on the clock. Then he plunged again, never quite awake, sometimes picking up the thread of a dream he will probably fail to remember later. He opened his eyes feeling very alert, and he saw gray strips of light between the shutters. Out in the street the day is breaking, but in the bedroom it is still night. It is the silence more than anything that lets him know how early it is: the same silence that was all around him when he fell asleep, the same in which he now spends so much of his time. He lives in a portable booth of silence. He is enclosed in it when he goes out and he reenters it when he comes back to the apartment, as he shuts the door and draws the safety latch. Then the voices are left behind. The written voices, the ones he overhears, even the ones that speak to him in dreams. The insidious voice that used to perch in his ear whispering a black virulence seems to have lost his track, as well as the circling shadow that was closing in on him again. Now he does know where he is. He knows the time, the day, though not quite—not yet—who he is. I who have been so many men.
Travel Lighter, Go Farther. He has fled into silence. He has taken refuge in silence and distance as in a monastery. He makes breakfast, but he only turns on the radio when everything is on the table. The inner courtyard is still dark outside the kitchen window. On the building opposite just two or three windows are lit on different floors. There is an intimate glow to them suggesting sheltered spaces, bedrooms tucked away in the back of apartments. One of them must cast the reddish glow he sees at night. He arranges everything as carefully as if he were sharing it with someone else. People who are alone but wish to keep a certain composure treat themselves with a kind of sleepwalking decorum. Before sitting down, he tunes the radio to a local station and the hosts with their familiar voices seem to join him at the table like guests or companions. Their voices reach him with greater clarity because his mind is as quiet as the apartment itself: the clapping of hands in an empty room. He hears the British voices of the BBC presenters, the voices of people speaking English in various accents and with varying degrees of difficulty as they testify to disasters, telling in a foreign language and to simultaneous translation of the torment or abuse or persecution they endured. In the early-morning silence you can hear helicopter blades, the clamor of starving refugees in makeshift camps, the toxic slogans of the demagogues and the drone of charlatans. The roar of a tempest, the cry of birds in a tropical swamp are heard on the BBC. People who are alone acquire a strange intimacy with the voices on the radio, always the same, at the same time of day. It is as one-sided as an unrequited love, yet it is never painful, only melancholy.
Enjoy Your Travel Time. Today, aside from scrubbing and putting everything away after breakfast, he must make preparations for the journey. Over the past few days he has traced the route with great care. He has made sure as far as possible that the weather will be favorable, or at least not adverse. This is a genuine expedition, but there will be no taxicabs, no rush, no traffic jams, no documents to verify, no security lines, no bewilderment or distress. It will be a real, substantial journey, a voyage of discovery, but it will take place in the course of a few hours. De Quincey says that under the influence of opium he sometimes lived a thousand years in a single night. More modestly, and in complete sobriety, he hopes to traverse a handful of worlds. He knows that in the absence of artificial stimulants he can experience a lucid inebriation brought about by solitude and exercise.
Experience the Spell. The weather forecast on the radio belies the glow of sunlight beginning to spread across the window. It will be colder than this sweet, deceitful light would promise, but there will be no wind, or at least not much. You have to look at the people down on the sidewalk, see how bundled up they are, the early risers taking a dog to the park or hurrying the other way toward the taxis and the subway stop. Provisions are just as important. According to the radio, the temperature at midday will allow him to sit outdoors on a bench and have a bite to eat. There are several rules to the trip, one of which is that he stop to rest only once, and that it be neither at a restaurant nor a café, given that another rule forbids any purchase except in an emergency or on a sudden whim, never departing from a principle of frugality. You can only eat what you bring, and if you acquire anything, it must be as a gift, or in barter, or at most in passing and from a street stand, since all stops must be kept to a minimum. The food must be nourishing but easy to digest and carry. There can be frugality without meagerness, a delight in what is simple, flavorful and nutritious.
Connect with What You Really Like. He prepares, for instance, two slices of rye toast with olive oil, tomatoes, a few slices of prosciutto from a deli and a couple of scrambled eggs. As its shell is cracked, each egg reveals a yolk as yellow as a sun, the bright color of autumnal pumpkins and taxicabs. The smallest detail deserves the right attention. He is the traveler risen at dawn to get underway, turning on one of the first lights in a building otherwise in nearly complete darkness. A Zen master is asked what is satori, the state of enlightenment: “Chopping wood,” he says, “carrying water.” Pressing down the sandwich, he wraps it in foil and places it inside his worn, supple satchel of dark leather, the one with all the buckles, along with a canteen, a bag of dried fruit and a small bottle of wine. He wipes the table and the kitchen counter and he scrubs the dishes, putting everything back in its proper place. Disorder will enter an empty house if it is given the merest crack of neglect. Setting out on the journey without first making the bed would be like carrying a dishonorable secret inside. He checks to make sure the laces of his boots are tight and that his feet are snug and comfortable. His phone is fully charged. He has his keys. In the right pocket of his coat there is a small spiral notebook and a pencil. He is wearing his round glasses and his bewildered face, and he has his satchel with a pair of added shoulder straps to make it easier to carry on such a long journey.
Find Everything You Need. He must bring a book as well since part of the trip will be on the subway. Choosing it will take a little time. It must be a thin book, circumscribed, weighing almost nothing, pleasant to hold and to feel inside his coat pocket; a book that opens and collapses like a fan, somewhat confidential or perhaps elusive, flowing like a piece of music or a long walk or resembling an object floating in midair; a book combining the factual nature of a guide or manual with the impudent secrecy of an intimate diary; a book full of blank spaces, some visible and some invisible; a book that seems posthumous even though its author is still alive, and whose voice is anonymous and at the same time unique; a book that seems freshly written though it was published a century or two ago; a book with a beginning and an end that nevertheless seems unfinished, resembling at the same time a hastily improvised draft and a concise inscription.
Win an Only You Experience. Before leaving the apartment, he takes a last look around. He feels there should be a kind of consummate perfection or civility to one’s absence. A cautiousness as well: in a world of ceaseless, ubiquitous and invisible surveillance to leave as small a trace as possible. “He enters the woods without setting a single leaf in motion; he enters the water without producing the slightest ripple.” At some point in the past he studied Taoism in some depth. He will aspire, perhaps simply out of indolence, to the exacting wisdom of doing by not-doing. The less of a mess you make, the less you or someone else will have to clean up. He will have taken care when showering to use the least possible amount of gel, shampoo and water. He has swept the crumbs off the table. He has opened the window, which is quite bright already, to let the cold and slightly humid air of late winter into the room. Whenever he prepares to go out, he tries to see everything as others would if they came in during his absence; what they would see or find if he were never to return. Whoever comes will find a few small signs and traces, but no trash. They will be able to settle in as nicely as those travelers in fairy tales who come to a house in the woods and find it perfectly arranged to receive them though no one is there. He wants to be conspicuous only in his absence.
Unexpected Dreams. This morning you have to bundle up to be outside. A hooded coat, a wool cap with earflaps, a scarf, some gloves, a thick sweater and a good undershirt. Keeping the cold at bay when you plan to be outdoors for many hours requires a certain expertise, the taking of particular precautions. From the window, the new day glows with a treacherous light, a glare of early spring belied by people’s coats and hats and by their gestures as they walk down the street. He has wrapped in foil his hearty, juicy sandwich of olive oil, tomatoes, prosciutto and freshly made scrambled eggs that give the bread a pleasant warmth. He has filled the canteen with water and a small plastic bottle halfway with red wine. He is also bringing some pistachios. Pistachios are an excellent way to replenish your strength as the hours pass and you start feeling weak. There is a sense of adventure to it all, as at the start of an expedition, a wealth of preparations.
Squeeze the Most Out of the City. He believes that, whenever possible, it is better to go on foot to places that hold something precious we wish to discover, something that cannot be found anywhere else and that is worthy of being honored by the effort of a walk. It is not necessary to go to extremes, like Catholic pilgrims crawling on their knees through stone and bramble to a miraculous shrine, or Buddhists lying on the ground and getting up and lying down again for the entire length of their journey. Walking tones the body, oxygenates the brain and predisposes the mind to a proper contemplation of the object we go in search of. Thought and feeling are brought to order with every step. The body’s external motion propels as well the flow of words and of ideas. A friend of Baudelaire once said he never saw him write a poem sitting down. He composed them as he walked, speaking quietly to himself. There was a single rhythm to his verses and his steps. Montaigne paced back and forth in his round study dictating to his secretary whatever came to mind, sometimes prompted by the spine of a random book or by something he saw down in the courtyard or in a field nearby from the high casement of his tower.
Venture into the World. It is about eleven o’clock, and he is walking up Broadway. Several hours remain to his journey. He wants to cover on foot the entire distance between the southern tip of the island and the house where Edgar Allan Poe once lived in the Bronx. He set off from South Ferry more than two hours ago, from the esplanade facing the mouth of the river at the southern end of the island. He pictured, as if it were an actual memory, Herman Melville as a boy, walking hand in hand with his father back when a forest of masts and rigging would have spread across the horizon. He saw the ocean crashing against poles where sailing ships once moored. He heard the horns of ferries coming over from Staten Island and of leisure boats packed with tourists heading out to the Statue of Liberty. Unnerving seagulls wailed and swung in the air above his head. Once, from this railing, he threw into the sea the core of an apple he had just eaten, and a seagull nearly grazed his head as it swept and plunged into the water to retrieve it, flapping and letting out shrill cries to ward off the other seagulls that wanted it too. He walked past the steps of the old Custom House that now houses the Museum of the American Indian. Herman Melville never knew this big emphatic building with its marble and its statuary. He worked in a precarious shed-like structure by the river’s edge. He was taller and more serious than the other men around him, a kind of Boris Karloff with the beard of an Assyrian potentate.
Connected to Everything. He came up the dark canyon of lower Broadway through the financial district, running into flocks of tourists and bank executives and employees. The waves of tourists are as tightly packed as on the Rialto in Venice. From the loading dock for the Statue of Liberty to the bronze bull that symbolizes finance or the stock exchange there is an overwhelming flood of tourists. They come from the far corners of the Earth to take selfies, raising extendable sticks high above the heads of all the other tourists. They crowd around terrified squirrels to take a picture. They press against the bronze bull as if taking part in an atavistic ritual, circling, lifting the selfie stick as if it were a candle or a liturgical object. A very large woman in a wheelchair is stuck in the middle of a crowded group of Chinese tourists. Garbage overflows from metal cans on every corner. Homeless people rummage in them and find slices of pizza, half-finished bottles of Coke, hot dogs with the ends chewed off.
Embark on a One-of-a-Kind Experience. He has seen the homeless stationed along Broadway at a certain distance from one another: the silent ones who stay still, wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags, and the ones who pace the sidewalk, accosting people and shaking plastic cups with a rhythmic jingle of small change. The ones who sit on the ground are white and do not beg aloud. The ones who pace the sidewalk or prop themselves against a building or a piece of scaffolding are usually black. He looks at the signs written on pieces of cardboard as he goes by. There are army veterans. There are HIV patients. There are pale, blond kids, boys and girls, staring into space or reading or writing and never asking aloud. A woman in her forties with disheveled hair is sitting on an upturned plastic bucket, smoking and holding on her knees the cardboard sign that tells of her misfortune. Sometimes there are two of them, a boy and a girl, always blond, blue-eyed, with dirty faces. They huddle together or up against a big dog dozing at their side. Today their faces and their hands are red on account of the cold, red and a little blue. A young man sits alone by a sign that says he killed his father to stop him from abusing his mother and sister and was put in a psychiatric ward. Melville walked these streets and so did Bartleby, his imaginary clerk. A city of low houses, docks and sailing ships, of churches, graveyards, dark nights lit by whale-oil lamps dangling over street crossings. The churches and the graveyards with their worn headstones are what still remain. Large, open spaces used to spread to the north where the narrow streets gave way: Broadway became the old winding footpath traced by the Lenape. It was an island of forests, hills, low swamps and marshes, streams and lakes. Trappers had killed off all the beavers for their fur. Of the Lenape, all that remained was a small population living on a patch of virgin forest at the island’s northern end. Herman Melville witnessed all of this. Poe did as well, or some of it at least, during those last years of mischance and heartbreak in the city—or rather in what used to be a rural area of Dutch-style farms and peasant houses lying well outside the city. Poe and Melville know each other. They cross paths on their walks through the troublesome city, a muddy waste of horse manure and filthy snow during the winter months, or they find themselves at the same bookshop or as guests at functions given by wealthy women with literary tastes. Melville has read Poe’s tales of terrors at sea: the one about the shipwrecked sailors caught in the Maelstrom; the one about the traveler who reaches the ice fields of the South Pole.
Beyond the Limits. The Mississippi of Broadway, Melville says; the Amazon, the Nile. At Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street stood the city’s water reservoir, resembling an Egyptian citadel or temple. There was a prison known as The Tombs that had an Egyptian portico with tall thick columns crowned by capitals in the shape of lotus flowers. The city gradually altered over time much as Broadway alters in the course of his walk. Avidly he traverses its many worlds, its times and places. Walking is doing something and not doing anything. It means wandering aimlessly along while also in a particular direction set by the course of the street that he began to follow at its very beginning. He stays always on Broadway and always on the west side of the street, the one in the sun. He has gone through noisy, crowded stretches and through places of sudden silence: the violent blows of a hammer on the metal plates they use to cover potholes; bulldozers digging into the asphalt and cracking it open to lift up piles of debris; pneumatic drills that make the earth shake and the windows rattle; giant trucks from Canada or the Pacific coast. A ripped-apart, eviscerated city; a city under construction and under destruction. He has passed trenches as deep as craters occupying entire city blocks where just yesterday colossal buildings were still standing. He has seen latticed metal structures rise and spread in very little time and turn from one day to the next into glass towers. This is the clattering work and the machinery of the world, the seismic and volcanic force of money shaking the island to its innards of hard schist.
Come Experience Something Different. There is a heartbeat, an ebb and flow to the slow and ceaseless shaking of the earth. The noise attains a maximum and then subsides as you cross a street that acts as a border. North of Canal Street there are wide zones of silence, also past the riot of construction and the multitudes that spread a little beyond Times Square. Near Columbus Circle the road and the sidewalk grow wider. You can see far into the distance. Suddenly it seems impossible to have endured such a density of human beings; of noises, traffic, things; of digital displays as large as the screens in old movie theaters; of beggars; of people in a rush, bumping and shoving each other; of women striking the ground in high heels; of colossal shops; of cheap restaurants and fast-food places. Walking north, he felt a growing sense of suffocation. The repetition of bank branches and of Starbucks and Duane Reades gives rise in him to a dull sense of timelessness and overwhelming corporate omnipotence. He walks and walks, and every corner is the same corner. The forward energy of the straight line crumbles into a circling vertigo.
That Long Crevasse of Shadow. He saw a massive, shirtless man coming down the street with a shaved head and a snake coiled around his neck like a scarf. He saw an emaciated woman holding in her hands what seemed like a basket or a tangle of wires or wickerwork and which turned out to be her fingernails. They were so long that they twisted and grew entangled like the nails of a strange predatory bird, a flying dinosaur, on a body and a face that were themselves a kind of corneous excrescence, skin as dry as parchment draped over her bones and stretched over her jaws and clavicles. In the man with the snake and the woman with the long fingernails he saw an intimation of terror, something like the start of a monstrous metamorphosis: Snake Man, The Clawed Woman, creatures out of a cheap horror film or sideshow freaks, crudely painted in bright colors.
The Rumble of That Fearsome Crowd. He is no one. He feels no weight. But the feeling now is one of fear rather than freedom. An inkling of how easy it would be to disappear, leaving no other trace than a black-and-white silhouette in a flood of people recorded as it streams past a security camera. Nobody knows him. He is one more among the city’s invisible denizens. Not as invisible however as that illegal Mexican tightening the bolts on a piece of scaffold, or as the beggar dragging his loose pants along the ground as people go by without looking, a skill that is one of the city’s distinctive traits. To see and simultaneously not to see. To determine within a fraction of a second who is visible and who is not, or who will become visible for only a few minutes to be erased in the blink of an eye or the wave of a hand. No need to avert your eyes since you made sure beforehand not to turn them in that direction. Put your guard up from a distance without seeming to notice the very thing you want to avoid. This is a city of zombies glued to cellphone screens and of invisible men and invisible women. Those who contract invisibility are changed by it over time. They turn into ghosts or into shipwrecked castaways gradually regressing to a savage state in the absence of human company. Time and again this morning he encounters people who look like they have survived for twenty years on a desert island and lost their minds. They walk down the street as through a forest or a heath where no one else is present. No one else is present because no one looks at them. As with all survivors on desert islands, they have not had a haircut in years, and they are still dressed in the rags and tatters of the clothes they wore when they were shipwrecked. Although they are surrounded by people, they eat in the middle of the street, or alone at a McDonald’s or a Subway in the savage solitude of a hungry animal. They piss or shit wherever the need finds them. No one ever comes near, so they have gradually forgotten the habit of reserve. They scratch in the sun like sleepy beasts. They speak or yell at no one in particular. Silence, as much as the monotony of always hearing only their own voice, has made them go insane. On the island they have become hairy, and their clothes have spoiled. Their skin is hard and coppery from always being outside. Their nails are dirty and thick; it has been years since they cut them properly given how unlikely it was to have found a nail clipper in the wreckage of the ship. Some carry on their backs the burrow or the hovel, the cave where they go into hiding. The hood over their faces is the entrance to the cave, so deep that no face can actually be seen; their rags are like a hut made of skins and furs on a winter steppe; the stench that envelops them marks the borders of their territory, driving away even more effectively those who come near. They sleep in a corner of a subway car from which the rest of the passengers move away: anchorites in a desert that is also a garbage dump, cowled like misanthropic monks.
The Beasts Are Among Us. He realizes that he tends to keep his head down as he walks, looking at the ground. His gaze travels in a sweeping arc, from the sidewalk in front of his feet to the faces of the people coming his way to the heads and shoulders of those who walk ahead of him in the same direction. He has walked for so long through so many cities, and he never found sidewalks so agreeable to walking and gazing as these. They are made of square or rectangular slabs of cement. The lines that divide them form a grid that helps measure the length of your steps. The cracks that spread over their surface trace out winding patterns that often resemble branches, or drawings of trees, or rivers flowing into deltas, or the outline of a mountain range. Arshile Gorky said the cracks on a sidewalk are always fascinating. After they fix a sidewalk, when the cement is still fresh, shapes are impressed on it that remain forever, hard and clear like fossil prints. Splayed hands, names, scribbled words and drawings, tracks of dogs and birds and human footprints. Splayed hands, especially. People walk by a slab of wet and freshly smoothed cement and they cannot resist the urge to press their open hands on it, just like twenty thousand years ago on the clay walls of a cave. On the city’s sidewalks you find the palms of open hands and the tracks of birds: pigeons, sparrows, starlings, species able to adapt and to survive in an environment so hostile to almost any kind of life. Their tracks can form delicate meandering lines across the width of a slab, strings of leaflike hieroglyphs, schematic dinosaur prints, the scattered marks left on a stretch of sand by seagulls and plovers when it is made smooth by the receding tide. When a slab of fresh cement is smoothed in autumn, the shapes of fallen leaves are impressed upon it as precisely as on Egyptian bas-reliefs or as the leaves of fossil plants: long wreaths of tiny acacia leaves, or the wavy fan of a gingko leaf with the small, clean stroke of its curving stem.
Live It in Super Slow Motion. Other leaves are imprinted as shadows or as on old photographic plates. Wetted by the rain or trampled underfoot, they adhere to the porous surface of the slab, then as they are swept or carried away by the wind, or as they decay, their shadows remain as if drawn in charcoal on the great gray sheet of the sidewalk, fading gradually through the winter months as they are altered by rain, snow, and changing weather. Sometimes on an entire slab there is just the imprint of a single leaf: sometimes near the railings of a park entire constellations can be found, herbals culled from various trees, arranged by chance as if with a distinct sense of spacing. In the Great Encyclopedia of Accidental Art that he would like to oversee, he would reserve for himself the volume devoted to the sidewalks of New York, canvases spread at people’s feet like Jackson Pollock used to spread his own on the floor, and step on them, and press into their surface whatever he could find on the studio floor: pennies, cigarette butts, the kinds of things that get tossed on the sidewalk. That volume will include a full-page color illustration of a hand he saw one early April morning printed on the sidewalk. The sun was shining after several hours of that bleak, demoralizing rain of early spring that soaks your pants and shoes and seems to punish people with its unacceptable lengthening of winter. It was a big hand, deeply printed, belonging to someone who had pressed quite hard on the cement. The gray sky had turned a clear blue, and in the hollow of the hand, where rainwater had collected to the brim, that very blue was shining even more purely.
Enjoy the Best Urban Picnic. Out of prudence, and even out of politeness, he knows that he must curb the habit of looking into people’s eyes. He knows it can be disconcerting and misinterpreted. People here are not used to meeting a stranger’s eyes. If someone tries to make eye contact, it must be for some unwelcome or at least suspicious or annoying reason: a panhandler, a crazy person, someone trying to sell you something, or giving out flyers or hunting for signatures with a binder in one hand in an aggressively friendly manner; someone selling tickets for a tourist bus or for bicycle rentals. The thicket of glances that grows as Broadway approaches Times Square must be traversed without meeting a single one, making eye contact at most for a few tenths of a second, never longer, so it will not be mistaken for an intention. Pupils dilate with a sense of threat. A look that lasts a second too long gives rise to a puzzled, mechanical smile that turns a second later into a hostile gesture, a brusque twist of the chin. Some looks can elicit danger if they are taken as defiant. Some dart from the shadow of a hood as from the depth of a basement or a den. Some glow with delirium. Children never look, unless they are foreign or very young, a year old or two at most. Children are trained never to make eye contact with strangers. Nor is it permitted to look at them, which is as dangerous as touching them even by chance, even by simply patting their heads or putting a hand on their shoulder for an instant. Children move in a visual vacuum from which even their parents’ gaze is often absent.
Geometry and Angst. Do not look people in the eye. Look ahead or stare into your cellphone screen or into space. If you look, they will capture you, they will ask for something, give you something, steal a few minutes of your time, or alter the straight course of your path. You must be like someone hovering around an object without ever brushing up against it. Notice every relevant detail as strangers come your way or you approach them but never show that you are looking. Or simply stare at your phone and give the outside world only as much schematic attention as you need to go from one point to the next, like a blind man who can find his bearings with just a few scattered taps of his cane. Learn to look out of the corner of your eye. Instead of looking people in the eye, frisk and feel around their silhouettes, their figures, acquiring all the information that seems relevant without appearing to do so. You will have a kind of radar to pick up irregularities in any movements taking place ahead of you. If a figure stands motionless in the middle of the sidewalk, it is already a sign to be on guard; also if it walks from side to side instead of moving in a straight line. Even before you see the plastic cup or hear the jingle of coins in the cup, you will detect him. Sometimes, without having to look, your sense of smell will warn you of a hideous stench. If the beggar is sitting on the ground or leaning on the wall, you only need to walk a little faster, staring straight ahead and seeming not to hear anything at all, the endless litany, “spare change, spare change.” The best way not to hear is to wear a pair of headphones, ideally the bulky ones that go over your ears, allowing you to live in a closed acoustic atmosphere as sheltered as the inside of a car. If the human figure blocks the way, you must begin to veer slightly to one side before you are near.
Catch the Best Fare and Fly. He crosses the island diagonally on the same path that was gradually traced over centuries by the footsteps of the Lenape. H. G. Wells’s time machine resembled a bizarre bicycle. More than traveling, he is walking through time. Up until the eighteenth century, Times Square was a lake surrounded by woods, and on its shores and in the streams that fed it beavers built their dikes and lodges. For centuries the Lenape had hunted beavers for their fur to turn it into winter clothing. The Dutch and then the English came to the southern tip of the island and began a trade in furs. They bought from the Lenape as many as they could supply, often in exchange for firearms that made it all the easier to hunt beavers. In less than a century, there were no more beavers on the island. Soon after, and without a trace, the Lenape were gone as well.
Rivers of Gold Flow in from Every Corner of the Earth. Times Square is an aquarium and a lake hundreds of feet deep, an underwater park, a theme park sunk beneath the waves in exact replica of the city above. Rooftops and spires poke out of the water like the outcrops of a coral reef. Clouds and plumes of vapor drift across façades of blue or tinted glass. Large screens attached to buildings produce a swaying sense of moving currents or immense aquarium tanks, a silent flood where radiant creatures of the deep are seen to drift and glide sedately. Now you do need to look up from the ground, raising your head, craning your neck. Varied creatures teem on the ocean floor, in the muddy silt and detritus of the sidewalks and pedestrian zones. Tight groups of tourists move like shoals of identical fish, wide-eyed, open-mouthed, quivering their gills, enveloped in the bioluminescent glow of their cellphone screens. Masked and helmeted like divers, shod in heavy shoes, the superheroes and the Disney figures and the Statues of Liberty wave their arms in grand aquatic gestures as they try to call attention to themselves. At those depths there is a swampy thickness to the air. The superhero suits and capes are made of cheap, outworn materials, flimsy plastic breastplates, giant heads of greasy plush, tights with holes in them, threadbare, with patches, synthetic fabrics crudely stitched and making those who wear them sweat profusely. Abandoning their strictly separate realms, the mascots and the superheroes mingle like species native to distant oceans gathered in the same aquarium tank. Batman and Superman were already coeval, but they are joined by Spider-Man, Darth Vader, Wonder Woman, Captain America, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Power Rangers, lumped together in the venal multicultural fraternity of degraded super-heroism, reduced to a spectacle for an idiotic tourist photograph, like Indian chiefs taking part in Buffalo Bill’s circus with painted faces and in warrior headdress. Peering out of Mickey Mouse’s gaping smile is the dark-skinned, frightened face of an undocumented Central American immigrant. The superhero costumes of Times Square are made in hidden sewing shops, in basements and industrial sheds in Queens and in the Bronx. The Statues of Liberty wear sunglasses and foam crowns, their faces covered in glitter and the hems of their robes soiled from being dragged over muddy patches of unmelted snow. On every corner, garbage spills and overflows from metal cans. The ground is a dunghill as thickly carpeted in plastic trash as the bottom of the sea.
The Beauty that Dwells in the City. Near the surface, in a brighter area high above the tourists and the selfie sticks and the puppet-headed superheroes, higher even than the signs over the restaurants and souvenir shops and the theater marquees, flow the powerful currents of the advertising screens, swaying with a slow and silent motion. Moving cameras follow from above as cars race at strangely sedate speeds through desert landscapes or on winding lakeside roads, along a cliff with breaking ocean waves below and down the long, straight avenues of cities without cars, or people on the sidewalk, or sidewalks. People jump and stay afloat as if submerged, as if jumping in a space station or on the moon. Women have long hair that floats around their faces like the hair of diving mermaids. Very young women with a golden glow to their faces and hair are running in light H&M dresses through prairies of high grass that wave and buckle in the wind. They run to the top of a hill with such ease that their feet do not seem to touch the ground, and then they jump and glide through the boundless space that opens on the other side. A man in a helmet and a pilot suit that make him look almost like an astronaut jumps in a parachute, swaying in a pristine sky that turns pink on the horizon where the sun begins to set. He loses altitude harmoniously, like a seagull soaring on still wings, or a hang glider. He lands on his feet on a paved road, a highway stretching away in a perfect line toward a mountain range. By the side of the road there is a Hyundai. The pilot packs his parachute with ease and stores it in the trunk. He removes his helmet. He is a man with tousled brown hair, an explorer’s sunburnt face and a scruffy three-day beard. He gets in the car, turns on the engine and drives away, disappearing into a horizon that is still aglow with a luxurious sunset. But a moment later he is back in the parachute, descending just as slowly as before toward the same red car.
Entertainment Without Limits. People rise and fall on digital displays at various depths with the same light grace. Rhinemaidens sway in submarine choreographies. A single ripple spreads across the screens, lifting all the floating people. Every thirty seconds it all repeats exactly as before. A lipstick tube is falling through the void, through a glistening darkness of silk or velour. Suddenly it shatters. A thousand particles of glass, metal and red matter spread in all directions, blooming rapidly, expanding like a sea anemone. But just as quickly as they exploded they fly back together and turn into a woman’s red lips, and then a hand with bright red fingernails pulls on a zipper to reveal a nascent cleavage. The zipper’s downward motion turns into the falling tube of lipstick, which in the screen’s nocturnal parenthesis explodes again, a lavish catastrophe, a burst of fireworks in the summer night.
Only the Best Can Reach This High. Words, too, flow in streams on ribbon displays that curve around the Morgan Stanley building or the Fox News building nearby: a river and a seasnake of words curving like a whip around their façades, relaying share prices, financial news, warnings, St. Petersburg subway hit by suicide blast, rivers in flood leave hundreds dead in Colombia. The letters and symbols of a brand take shape on a screen. The title of a Broadway musical, a car model, the latest Netflix series, the silhouette of a helicopter on a yellow background in an ad for Miss Saigon. A Norwegian Airlines Boeing 718 lifts off powerfully and flies in a straight line through a Himalaya of clouds. With dizzying swiftness a cellphone screen transforms into a high-tech city that opens its gates invitingly in Beijing: tree-lined avenues, glass buildings under pristine skies. Huge doors that open to let in a heavenly light. A muscular black man leaps from a diving board with his arms spread in a cross toward a swimming pool of gleaming blue, and he is like the Boeing 718 in the next screen over. In this underwater trench, this theme park, reality has been abolished so completely as to unleash in everyone, including him, the furtive traveler, a dizzying euphoria. Finally the artificial paradises of the old city wanderers became superfluous: De Quincey’s laudanum, Poe’s laudanum and cognac, Baudelaire’s hashish, Walter Benjamin’s opium and peyote. Urban hallucinations no longer need to arise from the mind since they are made objectively available across a thousand simultaneous screens. The cars, the women, the tubes of lipstick that appear on them are as large as creatures of the deep, as whales and giant squids. Store signs attain the fervor of apocalyptic prophecies: LAST DAYS, FINAL LIQUIDATION, EVERYTHING MUST GO. Signs for clearance sales, worn as sandwich boards by men with drunk and homeless faces, cannot be told apart from signs raised with vengeful zeal by preachers of the end of days. “You shopaholics,” one of them yells, waving his arms among the tourists, “you’d better kneel down and pray for the mercy of the Lord.”
There Is Horror, and Piercing Joy, and Sometimes Cruelty. He feels that he will never leave Times Square behind. His steps seem weightless and anesthetized. He must reach a shore of reason and reality as soon as possible. He must leave Broadway’s underwater canyon, emerge as quickly as he can from the liquid realm of screens. In broad daylight its digitized glow prevails over the antiquated light of the sun. The world seems entirely submerged beneath the perfect unreality of advertisement. Families as softly obese as sea lions guzzle down fictitious foods in the corporate decor of a McDonald’s or a Wendy’s or a Popeyes or a Subway or a T.G.I. Friday’s. They eat meat drenched in hormones and antibiotics, French fries doused with saturated fat, drinks sweetened with transgenic corn syrup. Each person leaves behind a trail of bags and plastic straws and food containers. Homeless people rummage in the garbage cans and find half-eaten burgers, nibbled bits of fried chicken smeared with ketchup, aluminum cans with a dreg of hot soda inside. Pigeons as dirty and gray as the trampled snow peck at a slice of pizza. Now and then seagulls come down from the cliffs of Times Square, drawn by the irresistible smell of melted cheese, burnt fat, the cornucopia spilling out of every garbage can at the end of the day.
Wild Fauna of the Asphalt Jungle. He walks and walks. It has been three hours, and it seems like days or lifetimes. His walks form a thread that runs through many times and places. One of his rules is to stop only once, and only long enough to eat. If there is no wind, he will be able to sit on a park bench. He only comes to a stop at red lights. There is no need to rest. He is the tireless little man in the traffic signal, the white silhouette marking the paths reserved for pedestrians in a park. The exertion of the walk generates the very energy that sustains it. He steps limberly on the firm rubber soles of shoes made specially for walking. The body’s weight and balance are centered at the base of the spine. The head of each femur slides in its hip socket like a well-oiled piston. There is a sense of physical exaltation that is sharpened by the morning cold. The clarity of the air seems to transfer directly to the eye and mind. Walking is now a permanent condition, an organic rhythm as efficient and well timed as the beating of the heart or the periodic intake of air into the lungs. There is a kind of folly in walking for so many hours; a stubbornness; a sense of incipient delirium; like drinking and drinking and wanting to drink even more. Walking is a gradual drunkeness without heaviness or hangover; a psychedelic trip fueled by oxygen and serotonin. The senses sharpen instead of growing dull; the will is perfectly at rest and simultaneously exerts itself along a constant path. The rule requires that he only stop for lunch and that he only make use of what he carries; he must not take anything that is not a gift. A newspaper is fine if it is free. Outside a tea shop, up in the seventies, a girl in a black apron is offering samples of hot tea. He takes a tiny cup and thanks her and drinks it as he goes. It warms his fingers, and it rouses his spirits, and it adds percussive force to his heels. The broad expanse of the river is now visible on side streets leading west. He is not allowed to browse through secondhand books at a street stand or stop at the strange sidewalk bazaars rigged up by people on a piece of plywood over a pair of supports.
Relax Your Senses. He has reached one of the small triangular parks formed by Broadway as it cuts diagonally through the city grid. There are benches in the scant and deceptive February sun. There is a garden, a statue, a kind of recumbent nymph in Greek sandals, with an ancient tunic draped over opulent shapes and with a hairstyle circa 1914. He has an old weakness for irregular city squares with gardens and statues. After three and a half hours of walking, he is suddenly beset by great hunger, by soreness on the soles of his feet and weakness in the knees. There are lost souls and castaways sunning themselves on the benches. He chooses a sunny spot that is a little sheltered from the traffic. He takes the satchel off his back and brings out the sandwich wrapped in foil, the paper napkin, the canteen, the small bottle with its measure of red wine. Being a meek and fearful person, anxious to obey whatever rules are placed upon him and to read all prohibition signs and regulations, he knows that consuming alcohol in public spaces is forbidden by the city, especially in parks, where one is not allowed to smoke either. But what could be a greater pleasure than a bite of rye bread, olive oil, fresh tomatoes, Spanish ham and the drippings of a scrambled egg, followed by a drink of wine the more enjoyable for being surreptitious, while on a different bench someone sucks on a straw from a tub of soda overflowing with malignant sweeteners, stamped with the seal of Kentucky Fried Chicken, made of materials that after being used only once will take a thousand years to degrade into a cloud of toxic microfibers that will go on poisoning water and life.
Votre Voyage Commence Ici. I saw him sitting on a bench in Straus Park, on one of the benches facing the midday sun and the receding view of West End Avenue, so rigid and severe in the foreground but then turning blue and gold with distance, at that hour on a clear day. I thought I had seen him the prior Sunday at the farmers’ market, on that terrible stretch of sidewalk in the freezing morning shadow up by Columbia. What made him hard to recognize was that I had never seen him so muffled up before, dressed in a winter coat and wearing a fur-lined cap with earflaps. There was an incongruity between the elaborate hat, no doubt effective against the cold but somehow archaic, out of a zeppelin expedition to the North Pole, and the relative meagerness of the coat, which suggested someone lacking harsh experience with intense cold. He was attentively examining the offerings at a mushroom stand. While the vendor, standing in front of his simple stall, stomped his feet and tried to huddle into his coat, he gazed at the various types of mushroom with the calm attention of a naturalist, unaffected by the cold as the minutes passed. His mild and natural composure softened my surprise, even if a little later he was gone. A blast of freezing wind had shaken the frail arrangement of poles and plastic sheeting protecting the farmers’ stalls. One of them, dismasted by the wind, toppled in its fall a pile of crates and sent a bunch of apples rolling hurly-burly down the sidewalk at people’s feet.
An Éminence Grise. The second sighting, to use a UFO term that he would have liked, took place at the Hungarian Pastry Shop. Just as in Madrid, his movements, or apparitions, were circumscribed to a few particular areas and neighborhoods. Straus Park, and the farmers’ market up by Columbia, and the Hungarian Pastry Shop, defined a reduced area of ten blocks and two avenues, since the Hungarian Pastry Shop, a less portentous place than its name might suggest, stands at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue that faces St. John the Divine.
The Moment Has Come. One morning I was having coffee at the pastry shop, and I felt sure for a moment that I had seen him walk past the door and turn to look inside, where he would not have been able to see much, given the contrast between the bright sun on the sidewalk and the relative darkness inside—a darkness as pleasing as the murmur of conversation, the soft lamplight, the waitresses’ voices calling out in thick accents the names of customers who had ordered before sitting down at a table. Sometimes I would work there in the mornings, reading or jotting things down over a cappuccino. If I had to meet someone, I did so at the pastry shop. I liked that it was a real café, a well-stocked patisserie, with a certain Austro-Hungarian expertise when it came to pastries yet with all the precariousness of a venturesome American business. I liked the coffee and the croissants, but I especially liked that it was not a Starbucks, that its tables were not taken up by zombies plugged into white earbuds and staring into screens, that real conversations between people could be heard, even occasional laughter, and no music governed by a corporate algorithm, in fact no music at all, and there were waitresses behind the counter and serving people at their tables, often politely, often even with a kind smile, attractive waitresses who always seemed a touch exotic, perhaps Eastern European, moving among the tables with a tray. Always or almost always there was a woman sitting alone with a book. I liked the absence of any trace of design: corporate, or hipster, or bohemian, or eco, or ethnic, or pseudo-vintage, or pseudo-French, or of any other kind. The walls had a yellow tint, as if they dated back to a time when people were allowed to smoke and had never been repainted. I liked to get there early so I could sit in a corner in the back, by the faint glow of a lampshade, commanding the narrow, cavernous length of the café, the to and fro of the waitresses, the air that grew thick in winter with the breath of people coming in from the street and with the rising, steaming moisture of their coats and hats in the heated room.
The World at Your Fingertips. The day I saw him go by I was sitting closer to the door, which I sat facing. Another day, hurrying to get somewhere, I turned the corner and glanced inside. It was one of those cold mornings when the café would fill up right away and seem even fuller because everyone was bundled up. That time I recognized him by the Arctic hat. He was holding a fountain pen and looking over some sheets of paper on the table. He seemed so absorbed that I felt I could not interrupt him, could not draw him from that private rapture that enclosed him in a perfect though not unsociable isolation, partaking as it did of the sounds and the warmth of bodies and the smell of coffee and pastries that filled the shop.
Everything Old Is New Again. Back then I had come to accept that my only meaningful connections in the city were with the dead, with absent or imaginary people and rarely ever with the living, those who moved about me or who lived on the same hallway in the same building, next door, on the other side of the wall. I knew more about dead people I never met and about ghosts of the past and figments of the imagination than about most of the living. The real ghosts were my closest neighbors. I knew of their existence only indirectly. A funereal cough would begin in the middle of the afternoon or in the middle of the night, somewhere up in the building above my head, and it would last for hours. It was a man’s cough, deep, rich, sometimes gravelly as if stirring up thick matter, other times as dry as a slow bark. Sometimes I woke up at three or four in the morning, and the sleepless cough was ringing, and it was maybe the reason I was up. In the lobby, or in the elevator, I never ran into anyone who coughed that way. It came in the dark, like the crazed sound of hammers or crunching gears when the heat came on and scalding water caused the old iron pipes and radiators to expand. Blows like those of revenants against the door, like the knocking that the dead apparently employ to send a message to the living at a spiritual séance.
A World of Possibilities Within Your Reach. In the apartment next door, or in the one above, a woman would sneeze repeatedly, and someone, before or after, began to play the piano. It was always the same sections of the same works: Bach, Schubert, Beethoven. Whoever was playing could do so with ease, though not very fluently, getting stuck or stopping always at the same difficult part of the piece. I became as familiar with the repertoire as with the places where the music broke off. I knew Bill Evans had once lived in the building, around 1960, with his partner Ellaine and a cat. It allowed me to think of the possibility that Evans had lived in what was now my apartment. He lived here when he was recording his live albums at the Village Vanguard with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, in June of 1961. His music, as he practiced or composed, would have come through these same walls. I would play one of those records, and the music filtered through the walls and into the lobby as if it were 1961 and he were still alive. Bill Evans was much more real to me than the woman next door, perhaps the one who sneezed and played Schubert and Beethoven. Over the years I had run into her three or four times, and we never spoke for more than a few minutes. All I knew about her was what I could infer from the things that turned up at her door. The New York Times, The Nation, packages from Amazon, junk mail, letters asking for donations.
Don’t Wait Any Longer to Own It. I never saw the people who delivered these things either, just as I rarely saw the ones who left a different set of things at my doorstep, adjacent to hers. On winter days there was sometimes a pair of muddy boots by her door, an open umbrella. Signs like these provided me with visual proof of the existence of people I rarely or ever saw. A Hillary Clinton or a Bernie Sanders campaign sticker under a peephole. A pink umbrella, a pair of women’s shoes and a pair of girls’ shoes by a different door. At first I thought my deep estrangement came from being a new arrival. Then I gradually came to realize that it would not be alleviated by the passage of time, but only grow more consummate. The longer I lived in the building, the more invisible I became. Sometimes I would hear people laughing in the hallway outside my door, greeting each other with great American cheer. I would look through the peephole curiously, a little enviously, and the laughter was gone and the people had just disappeared through doors that were once again hermetically sealed, the door to the apartment opposite, or to the elevator. I would come in from the street and greet someone who was leaving, and it was as if he had neither seen nor heard me. I would go over to the elevator where somebody else was waiting and say hello again. The person waiting just a step away from me would not even perform the reflex action of turning to face an approaching fellow creature. I began to think there was a border somewhere between invisibility and nonexistence.
What Your Image Says About You. Walter Benjamin says that to live is to leave traces. He knew what he was talking about. But if I thought of the traces I would leave behind when I was gone, I might as well never have lived here. The only person who never failed to recognize me from a distance and to approach me with signs of joy was a black homeless woman named Janis. She always wandered around the same part of the neighborhood, between 106th and 107th, near Straus Park. I would sometimes take Riverside Drive so as not to run into her. If I gave her a dollar, she made a sad, disappointed face. If I gave her five, she asked for ten. She was always decently dressed. She had a wide, pleasant face, with eyes that went in an instant from meek to sarcastic. The day I asked her name, she asked me mine and where I was from. When I said I was from Spain, she asked if it was true that in my country wild bulls were allowed to roam the streets.
What You Need Is Called. After so many years in the city, I felt more and more like a ghost. As the time approached to leave for good—for it was clear now that I had come back only to say goodbye, to be there fully one last time—I noticed the same uncertainties as on the distant days of my arrival. Back then I thought the sense of foreignness would fade over time. Now I knew it to be an incurable condition. You think you have finally settled in the city, and it turns out what you have settled into is the small enclave of your foreignness. Half the people in the city—they themselves, not their parents or their forebears—have come from other countries around the world. My sense of foreignness was the same as that of many others around me, but that was not enough to form a fellowship. Not even a fellowship of strangers. Each foreignness is different from the next, and all remain mutually indissoluble. Religious or patriotic ties can sometimes remedy or soften it; not because they make it easier for people to adapt to this new world, but because they spare them the need to do it. They are here physically, but really they continue to live in the world they left behind, a world they were able to replicate to some degree with the help of their countrymen or those who follow the same religion. Neither was available to me. Even language failed to establish a meaningful bond, not because it is spoken with different accents, but because Spanish is of no use to anyone as a true sign of identity. What does a Dominican or a Puerto Rican living in New York have to do with a Spaniard, a Colombian or an Argentine?
Be Yourself, Unless You Can Be Batman. To say it the old Spanish way, I was lonelier than one o’clock. I was alone in Donald Trump’s terrifying country, ruled now by his entourage of wealthy crooks, as heartless and cruel and rapacious as birds of prey. I turned on the radio, and his name instantly shot forth like an interjection. Each morning brought its winter weather forecast and its terrifying piece of news. They wanted to destroy everything as quickly as they could: the Environmental Protection Agency and the environment itself. They were visibly impatient to poison the air with the smoke of power plants, to poison the water with toxic spills. The secretary in charge of public schools was a plutocrat whose priority consisted in dismantling them as soon as possible. The highest official responsible for fighting climate change said that climate change was a hoax made up by the Chinese. The housing secretary was a black man who said that African slaves had come as immigrants hoping that their grandchildren or their great-grandchildren might one day enjoy the American dream. That phrase, “the American dream,” made me gag again as it never should have stopped doing. A malignant activism made sure no infamy went unfulfilled: they lifted the ban on lead ammunition while hunting on public lands, eager to pollute again the water, the earth and the bodies of animals with a toxic metal. They acted with a ruthless Bolshevik resolve, determined to destroy as quickly as they could whatever came before them, at any cost, inflicting the maximum possible damage on their class enemies.
Only One Other Thing Is More Desirable. I now admitted to myself that I had never stopped feeling helpless and afraid in that country. Always, deep down, at times with a keen awareness, I had been afraid of the overbearing power of the police and the impersonal cruelty of a vengeful system of punishment capable of crushing the anonymous, innocent lives of the mentally ill or the wrongly convicted. I felt fear and vertigo when the plane, preparing to land, rolled sideways to begin its descent, and you saw through the window the huge planetary scale of the ocean shore, the marshes and woods, the sprawl of identical suburbs and the city going on forever, spreading like a galaxy toward the edge of total darkness.
Reporting Tools in Case of a Catastrophe. I had a closer relationship with statues than with actual people: the beautiful statue of the Muse Mnemosyne in Straus Park, the Union general on horseback at the end of my block, the Buddhist master outside a nearby temple on Riverside Drive, the Duke Ellington statue on the other side of the Park, where Harlem begins, at Fifth Avenue and 110th. I felt addressed by the statues and even simply by the names on certain street signs. At 86th and Broadway, I saw the name of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who lived there when he was already a wealthy and successful man. Two blocks down, at the corner of 84th Street, there was an intersection named in honor of Edgar Allan Poe: the Edgar Allan Poe Way. Ranks and distinctions always apply. An Edgar Allan Poe Way is not as important as an Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard. My own street, 106th, was named Duke Ellington Boulevard. At 77th and West End there was a Miles Davis Way. Miles Davis lived in a house that now bears a plaque, an old rectory. He lived there for many years like a man buried alive, a vampire shunning the light of day, coming out at night and feeding on cocaine and never sleeping.
Experience a True Virtual Reality. Many years ago, in one of those past lives that come back only in dreams we instantly forget when we wake up, or in fictions we invent, someone told me there was an equestrian statue of Duke Ellington in the neighborhood. Duke Ellington on horseback like a glorious condottiere of black music, a dandy in an Art Deco tuxedo and a pair of riding boots with spurs, holding a baton in place of a riding whip and standing at the gates of Harlem. In one of those future lives that I never foresaw, I found myself living on this street that bears his name. A boulevard named Duke Ellington is almost as elegant as an equestrian statue of Duke Ellington, or as the glorious glow of a Duke Ellington recording. In time I came to identify the various loose facts that, coming together, aggregating like organic waste, had given rise to that legend or hoax that someone told me or that I only thought I heard and really made up myself. At the end of West 106th Street, the one renamed after Ellington, there is indeed an equestrian statue. It honors a Civil War general who was born in Switzerland, who emigrated when he was very young and who now sits upright on his horse, looking west atop a marble staircase, eternally facing the river and the vast continent beyond as if prepared to ride across, holding the reins in one gloved hand and his wide-brimmed military hat in the other. Farther north and east, at the corner of Central Park near the small lake with a Dutch name, the Harlem Meer, there is a Duke Ellington statue. He is not on horseback, but standing next to a grand piano on top of a wretched contraption that looks like a scaffold and also like a monument, not to jazz or to Duke Ellington but to wedding cakes, with Duke Ellington on top as a miniature groom, a miserable groom, standing alone at the altar as well as on his own useless cake.
Let Your Journey Begin. My street was very wide, but also quiet, with broad sidewalks and very little traffic. The width of the sidewalks is one of the beauties of New York. Outside a building across the street from mine I would often see splendid drawings done by children in colored chalk, resembling primitive paintings of animals and symbols: a dog, a sun, a row of squares for hopscotch. I would see the drawings but not the children who made them. A ruthless doorman sometimes erased them with a power hose. On that sidewalk, one night in December, Bill Evans came back from playing at the Village Vanguard to find all of his belongings in a pile: what little furniture he owned, his clothes, his records, his piano, his bed. He had been evicted for not paying the rent. I would see a tall, skinny man go by, gangly, in a trench coat and glasses, with that tired air that is so common here. I would narrow or close my eyes and see Bill Evans, the ghost of Bill Evans, a rare fellow man in a city of strangers. Pale-faced, engrossed, moving with the furtive gestures of a junkie, he would have darted out of the building almost always by night. He would have crossed the street at the light on 106th and West End Avenue, where I too have waited to cross so many times. He would have turned on Broadway at the corner now occupied by a Kentucky Fried Chicken that stays open all night, so that people fall asleep with their heads on the table, surrounded by leftovers and bags of food and plastic containers. He would have walked to the subway station at 103rd Street and taken the 1 to the Seventh Avenue stop near the Village Vanguard. It was the same stop where I got off to go to a different job. The door to the Village Vanguard opens directly into a narrow staircase leading down to the underground realm where ghosts find shelter.
They Turn Up Where You Never Imagined. I could have marked each of their addresses on a neighborhood map, using different colors, taking advantage of the various kinds of pencils I now kept always at hand: one color for musicians, another for writers; one for the dead, another for those who never existed; another for those who so vividly pictured themselves walking or living here that they must somehow have left a trace of their presence, a shadow, fainter than other shadows but perceptible to those who paid close attention or who possessed the right instrument or sensing device. Billie Holiday on 104th, where the post office stands; John Coltrane on 103rd. Hank Jones lived at 108th and Broadway in a single room that served him as a minuscule apartment. He died there at ninety-two. A score of Debussy’s Études stood open on an electronic keyboard. The Grammy he had won years earlier was put away in a shoebox. Hank Jones accompanied Marilyn Monroe on the piano when she sang Happy Birthday to President Kennedy. He was a gallant old man to the very end, a studious and active musician. I must have crossed paths with him many times on that sidewalk without seeing him or without recognizing him. On the very corner where he lived I saw Fred Hersch, the pianist, walking by. No one else may have recognized him. There is probably no other city where people walk alone in such a state of absorption. Fred Hersch is someone who nearly came back from the dead, from a coma that was nearly terminal. He and I were walking at the same pace, quite close to each other, down Broadway, but I did not have the courage to say hello, to tell him how much I liked his music.
It Can Catch You Anywhere. Federico García Lorca would have walked repeatedly down these same sidewalks during his time at Columbia, flat-footed, a little clumsy, always hurrying from place to place in the city bustle. Seen and unseen. Six months later he left New York and never came back. Down Broadway, which is nearly unchanged in its architecture after all these years, even if people are dressed differently, a stout old man walks slowly in a dark suit, formal, a foreigner, thinking that his murdered son must have stepped on this very sidewalk. His ghostly son, frozen in the prime of youth by death.
Where Have I Heard That Voice Before? In a few minutes I could get from where I lived to the corner of Riverside Drive and 109th. That is where Hannah Arendt lived until the end of her life. When I found out I thought of the mark I would make on the neighborhood map. And then I realized that if Walter Benjamin had not taken his life in September of 1940, if he had reached Lisbon and sailed to New York with the ticket and the visa stamp he had already secured, he would undoubtedly have lived on one of these streets, perhaps in this same building. Toward the end, his will and his imagination were focused on New York. He had started learning English. He was fond of American films and read Faulkner, Light in August, but found it so hard that he helped himself along with a French translation. It is surely characteristic of Benjamin to begin his study of the English language with a Faulkner novel.
When There Is No Path, You Blaze Your Own Trail. Benjamin pinned a map of New York to the wall of his Paris apartment. He wrote letters to Gretel Karplus, Adorno’s wife, with whom he was probably or had once been in love. There are indications that they may have met secretly once or twice. Sometimes his letters were addressed to a post office box. The names of the women in Benjamin’s life seem taken from a novel; a novel enticingly titled with a woman’s name: Gretel Karplus, Asja Lācis, Ursel Bud, Olga Parem, Jula Cohn. He eagerly awaited her letters, with their exotic U.S. stamps and the names of New York streets written in the upper corner of the envelope in her own hand. Seeing her handwriting was almost like watching her approach—short hair, dark eyes, sharp features—on a Berlin street. The envelope said “Christopher St.,” and he searched for it on his map, putting his face right up to it because he was very short-sighted and lacked the money to buy a stronger pair of glasses. He had the same way of leaning over when he pored over a piece of writing in a tiny hand or over a dusty, ancient-smelling book in the National Library in Paris. When he was finally able to make out the name of the street on the map, he made a mark with one of his colored pencils. Gretel Karplus said in one of her letters that she and her husband had gone to see Lotte Lenya at a nightclub. It was like being in Berlin, Gretel said, as if those years had returned, 1925 to 1932. But the address on Christopher St. is temporary. A few months later they are preparing to move into a larger apartment facing the Hudson, Karplus writes, and he instantly searches the map for the blue swath of the river, on one side of the island, a thirteenth floor. Another envelope bears her new address: 290 Riverside Drive. From the desk you can see the river through the window, she says: she is looking at it as she writes. “I wish we could go on a walk together along the Hudson, talking at ease about everything.”
No Matter Who You Are, We Adapt to You. She pictures the walks they will take together when he finally comes to New York, the places she will show him. She even likes to imagine that she will have the courage to drive so she can show him the city by car. Benjamin decides to learn English. He asks her to write her letters in English and feels pleased to understand them. He reads Poe, “The Man of the Crowd,” and takes down some notes for his project on Baudelaire and the city. He reads Henry James, The Turn of the Screw. He discovers Melville and reads one of his lesser-known novels, Pierre, where he finds stimulating descriptions of the streets of New York in the mid-nineteenth century. He reads James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice, which makes a big impression on him. He watches American films to get used to the sounds of the language. One night he discovers Katharine Hepburn and falls instantly in love with her. “I recently saw—for the first time!—Katharine Hepburn. She is magnificent. She reminds me very much of you. Has no one ever said that to you?” Ever more anguished letters arrive at 290 Riverside Drive in the last days, from Paris, from an internment camp, from Lourdes: Benjamin says he has “a terrifying sense of being trapped.” The world crumbles in Europe but letters continue to go back and forth. In one of them, from the summer of 1940, Benjamin tells Karplus he had to leave Paris very quickly, bringing nothing but a toiletry bag and a gas mask. In the penultimate letter to arrive in New York, he says to her: “We must make sure to put the best of us in our letters, because nothing suggests we will see each other again soon.”
What Hope Is There for the Dead? But he could have escaped. He could have postponed for a single day the decision to take a lethal dose of morphine at the Hotel de Francia in Portbou and found the border open, the path clear across a ravaged Spain to Lisbon and then to New York, safe at last, stunned, restored by the calm and the fresh air of the ocean crossing. After all the walking he did in Berlin, and then in Paris, New York would have been a continual temptation to venture forth. I saw his ghost from behind, the way his friends used to say he was instantly recognizable in a crowd: stooping forward like a turtle, as Asja Lācis said, since those who are not in love can always afford to be ironic about the ones who love them still, despite their coldness and perhaps because of it. Walter Benjamin is walking down Broadway in the conspicuous suit of a European exile, as formal as he ever was, down to his terrible end—the suit, the tie, the vest—invariably polite and curious and half blind, experiencing a giddy pleasure in observing everything, the signs, the lettering and logos of the brands, sometimes too the sense of being back in Berlin which he never felt in Paris, the noise, the rush, the general air of commercial vulgarity, the people speaking German or Yiddish or English with a German accent, the Jewish smells and flavors in the delis, the joy and guilt of having fled the apocalypse in Europe. He would have felt much less foreign and alone than during his years in Paris. Many of his old Berlin friends were in New York, the ones who arrived before the war or at the same time as he did, and then the ones who would come later, who survived, who were resurrected, who came back from the land of the dead telling awful stories or keeping an even more frightful silence, wearing long sleeves in summer to conceal the blue numbers tattooed on their forearms.
Escape Is the Only Option. He walked by Columbia University or along Riverside Drive, holding onto his hat and glasses in the wind that blows from the Hudson. He sat on a bench in the sun in Straus Park. He finally recovered, after the war, all the documents and manuscripts he had left behind in Paris under the care of Georges Bataille, the unruly profusion of his book on Baudelaire and the arcades and the world of the nineteenth century. Perhaps he would have attained what proved impossible no matter how hard he tried during his earlier lives in Paris and Berlin, a relatively secure position in life, a post at a university, perhaps the New School, something that would allow him to have a fixed address, a decent income, the necessary calm to write all the books he always had to defer because of poverty, political uncertainty, the precariousness and urgency of newspaper writing. In émigré apartments on Riverside Drive or West End Avenue, in curtained rooms lined with books and cluttered with European furniture and ornaments, he would have plunged for hours into a thick fog of tobacco smoke and German philosophy. Speaking to a friend on the street, he would have come to a sudden stop in order to explain something, oblivious to the irritation of those behind him at seeing their straight and speedy trajectories disturbed. He would not have accepted the heat as an excuse to give in, like nearly everyone else, to open shirts and light-colored jackets. The dead preserve a remarkable loyalty to the past. No country is more hostile or more foreign to them than the future, that place where those who survived were able to settle so casually once they let go of their memories.
Predict Your Future. So I cannot say I was very surprised to see my old acquaintance sitting in Straus Park that day, just as I had seen him before in Madrid, perhaps also in Granada, and now more recently in places that were such a deep part of my life in the city, the Hungarian Pastry Shop, the farmers’ market they set up on Thursday and Sunday mornings up by Columbia. He seemed entirely out of place and also as much a part of the scene as the lost souls who populate the park when there is any kind of sun. I was familiar with nearly all of them. Lost souls are as faithful to certain places as ghosts to the houses they haunt. There was a fat woman with cropped hair and childish bangs who used to sit with her hands on her big thighs, slightly raising her face to the sun. There was something masculine about her, but with a soft, eunuch-like quality. Around her neck she wore a collection of keys and a wreath of subway cards and loyalty cards from various drugstore chains in the area. Sometimes she spoke to herself and sometimes to the homeless person or the tired old man sitting on a nearby bench. When she spoke to herself, she seemed to be peremptorily addressing someone else. When she spoke to others, she seemed to be talking to herself. Some days she was still and quiet, others she was talkative and restless. Then she would smoke, taking quick short drags on the cigarette, avidly but with a kind of constraint.
The Office Is Within You. On the adjoining bench sat the crippled Vietnam veteran, red-faced, his hair and beard a dazzling white beneath the military cap. In decent weather he wore shorts. When he arrived at the bench, he would unscrew his prosthetic leg and place it upright on the ground, next to the good leg, in the same white sock and shoe. He massaged the stump, and he exposed it to the sun, jutting out over the edge of the bench. Two black women in formal hats and mourning clothes dispensed religious pamphlets and copies of the Jehovah’s Witnesses magazine. That day the novelty was a well-dressed, long-haired young man who scribbled rapidly on a spiral notebook held open on his knees. He could be there just that once or he could turn into a regular, attracted by the park’s peculiar magnetism, its small triangular garden, the statue of Mnemosyne lying on her pedestal as on a comfortable bed. (It was fitting for a neighborhood so thick with names and ghosts to be presided over surreptitiously by the muse of memory, even if almost no one noticed her). Over time, some of those who were most faithful to the park would disappear. I always remembered a very tall, very thin man, extremely pale, with a faint white fuzz over his skull, which protruded beneath the yellow skin. He had no teeth, no flesh on his cheeks or muscle on his arms. Walking was getting increasingly hard. He moved forward on stiff legs, swaying to keep his balance and dragging his feet. He would sit down and spend hours without doing anything or speaking to anyone, just ‘holding a cup of coffee in one hand. (I am not sure exactly how much time passed before I realized he never came anymore.)
Find Out Right Now if You Are a Winner. From across the street I could tell it was he not so much on account of his face as of his manner, the way he sat, the cap with its earflaps buttoned at the top under a kind of pompom, the satchel he always carried, on which I noticed a pair of straps that allowed it to be carried like a backpack. He had spread a cloth napkin on his knees. He had tied another around his neck for a bib. On the bench, by his side, stood the canteen and a small plastic bottle. I saw him unwrap the sandwich and offer some of it to the fat woman with the keys and the customer cards around her neck. She looked at him, perhaps not understanding what his gesture meant. As soon as the light changed, I would cross over and greet him. It was lunchtime, and I had not spoken to anyone until then or used my voice in any way. Now the fat lady was smoking, sucking on the cigarette as if she were spitting, and she was also telling him something, though looking away, and he was nodding thoughtfully. I could have crossed now but I preferred to keep watching. He would drink from the canteen or the small bottle and carefully wipe his mouth. Now the light had changed again, and I had to wait. I saw him give the fat woman a piece of sandwich and a paper napkin. Then he folded the piece of foil in which he had wrapped the sandwich, and he put it away in his satchel along with the two napkins, the one that had served him as a lapcloth and the one that had served him as a bib. He took a map from the satchel and he spread it open on his knees. He was looking at a cellphone and jotting things down on the map. He folded it up neatly. He slipped it into his coat pocket. He stood up and said goodbye to the fat woman, whose mouth was full of food. For an instant I thought that he had raised his hand to his cap in greeting, that he had seen me. Then he looked away. The light had turned green, but I did not cross. Suddenly I was afraid that he would not recognize me when I approached, that I would call out to him and not be heard, that my voice would not come out of my throat, as when you want to speak in a dream and you are not able to do it. I saw him go by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and, much to their surprise, take the pamphlet and the magazine they offered and put them in his satchel. He put the straps around his shoulders, and he crossed Broadway heading east, past the corner with the Duane Reade (but there is a Duane Reade on almost every corner, a Chase, a Bank of America, a Starbucks: they only begin to disappear as you go into Harlem). And I have never seen him again.
Feel Every Fiesta Moment. Everytime you stop before crossing the street there is a quick human vignette; a still frame in the continuous sequence of the walk. At Amsterdam and 110th a black kid is skipping in place, like a runner trying to stay warm; as if climbing, as if bouncing on his rubber-soled sneakers; the music that can be heard so clearly must be blasting in his ears; he skips on one foot and then the other, he lowers his head to let the hood drape over it more fully; he begins to cross before the traffic comes to a stop. Farther up, in front of the cathedral, a man and a woman are having an argument, standing very close together and so near the edge of the sidewalk that a passing bus has nearly grazed them. Mutual hostility makes their closeness suffocating. The man looks very serious, though a little distracted. The woman lifts her eyes to speak to him, and her mouth is distorted with weeping. The man is carrying two plastic bags full of stuff, one in each hand. The woman, choking with tears, can no longer speak and merely rests her closed fists without violence on the lapels of his old coat, as if capitulating, while he glances sideways at the light as if waiting for a chance to flee.
Stuttering the Fire That Burns Inside Me. Now a blind man stops beside him. It is at Amsterdam and 125th. He would like to ask him what the city is like when not sensed through the eyes. All ears, nothing else. The noise, the clatter, the rumbling of a bulldozer or of the subway passing beneath your feet. He wants to know the peculiar quality of each person’s footsteps: slow, quick, dragging, rhythmic, random, heavy, each as distinctive as a voice. He imagines all the footsteps on one street, all the footsteps in the city, moving in rhythmic polyphony; the ones that are drowned by the noise of traffic and construction and the ones that grow distinct again as silence spreads, in interludes of calm. As other times before, and just as he was entering Harlem, he left the phone’s recorder on without realizing it. He listens to it later, closing his eyes though it is not necessary: that day’s acoustic archeology and not any other’s, this city’s, those particular streets, so different from any others. On the recording he can hear things again that he does not remember having heard: sparrows during a lull in the traffic, the voices of children playing and laughing loudly, a long scream that is initially hard to place. It was a black man, at 125th and St. Nicholas, moving in circles on the sidewalk. He was shouting, seemingly addressing the mannequins in a store that sold cheap African clothing, pointing a finger at them accusingly as if they were callous witnesses and then attacking a stone wall, taking a few steps back to get a running start and kicking it as if he meant to climb it, finally raising a fist as if to strike it though he never did, it was always just the furious gesture of knocking on a huge door that no one else could see. Perhaps images are fixed more firmly in our memory than sounds: he remembered perfectly the man’s circular dance on the sidewalk and how he struck the wall, but he had forgotten his scream, a kind of long wail really, which remained on the recording, blended with the noise of buses and the sirens and the periodic beeping of the signal for the blind.
The Box of Terror. There are as many different stories as there are different faces, says Svetlana Alexievich; as many voices, too, and for every face and voice and story there is a different way of walking, a different gait and rhythm to the steps. The way people walk is as singular as their voice or face. It will never be repeated. With the invention of the daguerreotype it became possible to preserve faces, while voices began to be collected just over a century ago. We know Baudelaire’s face but not his voice. We have photographs of Chopin. The last months of Poe’s life are documented in a series of increasingly disturbing pictures. We have no moving images of any of them. There might have been some of Pessoa or Benjamin. We could have known what their voices were like, but they were never recorded, or the recording was lost. Walter Benjamin spoke often on the radio. There could be an early film of Oscar Wilde. For a long time, things in motion were invisible to photography. Passers-by, horse-drawn carriages and carts leave a faint trace in some of Eugène Atget’s pictures like a glowing, foggy exhalation. The streets of Paris are always empty in his photographs, not because he wanted it so but from technical limitations in how the image was captured. But this confers on them an unplanned realism, a poetry of disappearance. People, horses and dogs, busy gentlemen and idle ones, workers, seamstresses, bill-stickers with pots of glue, they are all there, but they leave no trace. They are there, and they are gone, which is the common lot. Then as the first moving pictures appear, one does see people, but they pass very quickly, hastening to vanish as soon as possible, possessed by the urge of extinction. What would it be like, a moving picture of De Quincey, a film where for a few seconds you could recognize him, very old and in his beggar clothes, with that air about him of a decrepit child, lost in the crowd on Oxford Street?
Authentic Human Hair. On the accidental recording he can hear his own steps, and they seem even stranger to him than the sound of his voice. They are somewhat arrhythmic, heavy, clunky, stubborn, like a mechanism made of simple gears and bellows. He wants to close his eyes and hear the footsteps of every person who walked with him that day on those same sidewalks, up Broadway, up Amsterdam, making gradual readjustments as if charting a course at sea, straight north at first, for hours, then northeast, then east along 125th Street, north again on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and then northeast to the very end of the island, the river, the great geological border of the Bronx, a perimeter of highways and bridges. This city where people seem to walk faster and in straighter lines than anywhere else is also full of slow, plodding motions, of halting steps and dragging feet. There is a city of the swift and a city of the slow, mixing and flowing together in the Mississippi of Broadway like the many different currents that form a river’s seemingly uniform stream. The swift allow no interference to their stringent paths, urging those who walk more slowly to step aside lest they delay them for a single moment. They could step aside themselves, but it would be an abdication of the privilege conferred on them by their health and their physical impetus. They go up or down the subway steps at a gallop, angrier and more impatient still because people who walk slowly take even longer to climb a flight of stairs.
No Rats No Roaches No Mice in Your House. The swift are impelled by health, money, the pressures of work, by physical appearance and by the gold of time, measured in minutes and seconds. The slow are going nowhere, and if they are, it will make no difference if they get there late or if they never arrive. The slow are old, fat, sick, homeless, deranged, paralyzed, limping, or missing a limb. Extreme obesity is an unconquerable slowness. Normal bodies suddenly have a kind of excrescence, a giant, shapeless rump hanging to one side like a stuffed bag. A small man limps forward lifting and extending the giant sole of an orthopedic shoe. A very fat woman in a wheelchair with a leg cut off. Some wheelchairs are motorized and some must be pushed by hand. Some are highly complex machines that can be controlled with the chin or with a fingertip. Some people walk on rounded plastic legs, or legs made of metal bars, or jointed legs that end in an athletic shoe. The slow are wearing busted sneakers without laces, old slippers that can barely hold their swollen feet, or they just wrap them in shreds and rags and tattered plastic bags. They are bent double, hunched over, twisted, slumped over the frame of a walker or the handle of the supermarket cart in which they carry their groceries or the junk they gather, whatever they can find here and there. There is something exorbitant in almost all of them, a disproportion, an excess: extreme old age, obesity, a deformed back, a stench, a general decay.
Welcome to Trinity Church. They walk on light aluminum crutches, on old wooden crutches or leaning on canes, on sticks, like pilgrims or prophets, on broomsticks or pieces of plastic tubing. They move like cripples in a scattered medieval procession to a miraculous shrine. Some are lame, some crawl, some are pushed in wheelchairs or go a little faster on motorized tricycles, some are bloated with sugars and greasy toxic foods, some had a foot cut off because they could not afford treatment for diabetes. Some are families that were evicted from their homes, often black women with several children, carrying or dragging a suitcase. Or they stand on the sidewalk next to their bags with a look of stupor and fatigue outside the subway station, heading who knows where once they begin to move. Nearby, like arrows, the swift go by at the height of their powers, rushed, indestructible, with a hard sinewy youth about them, fresh from the gym, immune to age, with a sports bag on one shoulder, the women in tights, their hair pulled back in a band, a vitaminwater bag in one hand and a cruel resolve to their upturned chin.
Walk in Blissful Comfort. The next stage for the slow is to lie huddled in a heap of rags in a corner or in the gutted entrance to a vacant store or in the middle of the street; someone suddenly stands still, lacking the strength to push a walker uphill or through a pile of dirty snow left behind by a storm; someone collapses to the ground and remains motionless. On a corner outside a Popeye’s a black man in dirty clothes is lying face up on the sidewalk, his belly exposed, missing a shoe with the nail of his big toe sticking out through the sock. Some people pass without looking, some stop for a moment and continue on their way. An older woman leans down and touches his face, asking him something. The man’s eyes are closed. His chest is heaving with irregular breathing. It is much colder in the shade, and you can see his breath condensing. A few customers look out the window of the Popeye’s. Others continue eating. A police cruiser arrives. People look from a distance.
African Hair Braidings. Big shoe stores and clothing stores on 125th. Bank branches and boarded-up stores, new buildings made of glass and old apartment blocks of red brick. Men’s barber shops with pictures of black models. Women’s beauty parlors offering relaxers and African braids. Bright African robes and headwraps in shop windows, green and yellow and red. Stacks of videotapes in the window of a music store that closed years ago, films with black actors, grimy sun-bleached posters advertising horror movies and erotic films and thrillers. Street stalls line the sidewalk. They sell fake African sculpture, necklaces, pendants, cellphone covers, chargers, crude counterfeits of luxury handbags, scarves blowing in the wind in imitation silk, Christian saints, Buddhas, Virgins, African gods or warriors, fertility goddesses with udder-like wooden breasts. They sell perfume bottles with xeroxed labels, rows of glass vials with dubious glistening oils that smell of sandalwood and patchouli. A fat woman in a bronze-green Statue of Liberty robe, in a green rubber crown, with a green face, is giving out flyers offering legal services. Her boots and the hem of her robe are stained with muddy slush from puddles of dirty snow along the curb.
Pawnbroker Casa de Empeño. He has noticed as well another kind of person who moves slowly, the kind who talks or shouts, announcing Christ’s imminent coming, or is whipped into a frenzy of invective and tirade against invisible foes. A man in an oversize jacket that reaches below his knees is spinning on the sidewalk, sleeves dangling like rubber arms. He stops and raises an accusing finger at someone: the mannequins in a clothing store. He begins to spin again. He begins to kick a wall, backing up to get a running start before he strikes. He strikes the wall that is covered with peeling posters as if he were knocking on an immense door.
Jewels Diamonds Gold Watches. The new prevails over the old; the swift over the slow; steel and glass over brick and stone. Banks and real estate firms have much larger storefronts than African salons and barber shops. Logos for cellphone brands; young white people laughing on billboards with their mouths wide open. The poor cling as best they can to the punished surface of a city that was theirs and from which they are being evicted. Names awaken the imagination and invigorate the walk: Harlem, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Malcolm X Boulevard. The two men who in life were adversaries are posthumously reconciled in the shared destiny of their assassinations and in the coming together of their names at a street crossing.
The Alhambra Ballroom. He gathers place names like an explorer. At a certain point the walk becomes an exercise in sustained hypnosis. He is the hypnotist and the hypnotized subject. He crosses worlds and continents. There are no more Starbucks now, but there are many churches, modest churches in old shops and stores, and then those corner places they call bodegas, using the Spanish word. On the doors of the bodegas there are oversize color photographs of scrumptious food: grilled hamburger meat, fatty bacon strips, melted cheese, thick slices of roast beef or turkey smeared with runny yellow mustard. Now he walks through knots of men speaking African French. They are leaner than American black men, the way they sit is different, the way they stand and talk in groups. There are new smells that are not the smell of fast food: rice, grilled fish, grilled plantains, unleavened Ethiopian bread.
First Ebenezer Baptist Church. Turning north again it all grows more subdued, the sky expands. The street grows wider because the buildings are no longer tall. A broader prospect opens up before him, a large horizon that makes him breathe more freely and gives new vigor to his tired legs. On the accidental recording, he will later notice how the sounds begin to fade or disappear until nearly all that is left is the monotonous rhythm of his steps. The sidewalks too are unobstructed, nearly empty of people. Beauty parlors, bodegas, churches, African or Haitian community centers. Farther north you start to hear voices speaking Spanish, to notice Spanish signs on the bodegas. In front of him, a boy with a backpack in a hooded winter coat is walking hand in hand with his father. It is not something you see very often in the city. Here, children old enough to walk by their parents’ side are pushed along in strollers that are too small for them, scrunched up, staring at an iPad or a phone. Some strollers have extendable arms or supports into which the device is placed so that the child, without needing to hold it, can look at the screen from an adequate distance. The father, the mother or the caretaker pushes the stroller while talking or typing on the phone. He slows down so as not to pass the father and child. The boy is saying things, and the father leans a little in his direction. Hooded, in boots, and with a satchel on his back, he is a boy in a fairy tale. Unexpectedly he finds himself seized by a jolt of tenderness that solitude and time turn into sadness. Suddenly, nothing and no one are near.
Association des Maliens de New York. It is even quieter now, a wide street, an expanse without traffic, like a square or like one of those American towns with low buildings that give way to a plain. Like a nearly secret, deserted border. What was vertical became horizontal, clamor turned into silence. A two-story motel with a wide parking lot reinforces the sense of strangeness. In front of the motel there is a small park enclosed by a railing. Farther on, an auto shop, a garage, a post office, also very low, with a flag waving against the clear sky. It is as if the walk had lasted so long that it led him into the interior. He sees a river or a broad canal, the curved crossbeams of an iron bridge that is painted white, a bunch of highways: the fluvial and geological divide that separates the island from the great continent beyond, Manhattan from the Bronx, a name that rings with the slow deep sound of a bell or a gong, the Bronx, as powerful as the name of certain Asian capitals on a map at school: Samarkand, Ulan Bator.
Built to Fit Your Life. Rivers and bridges are America’s greatest beauty, a conjoined wonder of nature and engineering, the one forcing the other into heroic disproportion: an immense river tamed and a human work exalted to the scale of a landform, a canyon, a gorge, a mountain range in profile against the horizon. Each crossbeam and pillar, each rivet, each rusted surface of peeling paint bears the great drama of matter’s resistance to the onslaught of wind, rain and snow, worn, bent, expanding with heat and contracting with cold, one extreme and then another, the ceaseless violent vibration of traffic on the roadway, the force of rushing water against a pillar, the powerful tug of gravity. Crossing this bridge is like passing through those solemn gates one pictured slowly opening in fabled city walls, the gates of Ulan Bator, the Great Gate of Kiev. By car it would barely register. On foot, you know from the very moment you step on the quivering walkway and gaze at the silent river below that you are crossing a border. Whatever lies ahead will be very different from what came before, a new world for your foreign eyes and ears.
Happiness Is Happening. At the other end of the bridge there are three guardian-like figures. He keeps walking at a steady pace, overcoming without effort the impulse to go back. He cannot tell yet if they are facing him or if their backs are turned. They are motionless, positioned at the exit to the bridge, by the side of the road. Two of them walk away toward the highway that rises from the river. As he gets closer he can see that they reel and stagger rigidly in a kind of strange Saint Vitus’ dance. One of them is missing a leg and leans on a crutch. Both move here and there among the cars that are waiting at the light, one of them showing a piece of cardboard with some writing on it, while the other, the one with the crutch, shakes a plastic cup by the drivers’ windows. The light changes, and the two escape as best they can between the moving cars. The third man has not moved. He is sitting on a low stone wall, letting his legs dangle. The hood of his parka completely covers his face. As he goes by, he is aware of being watched and hears the jingle of change in the cup. He is not good at not looking. He has not learned to walk past another person as if no one was there. Turning his head, he is met by the man’s dark gaze. His eyes are bright, the whites around the irises very clear in the shade of the hood. He is a black man, and he looks old, with a grizzled white beard. His gaze is full of human dignity. As he walks past and looks away, he hears the sound of the man’s voice at his back. “Good morning sir,” it says, politely and sarcastically.
Blink and Feel Good. He has come to a different city that is not ruled by the straight line, the grid, the horizontal. In the Bronx, there are hills, gullies, stepped streets, curving avenues, steep stone walls and staggered planes in the distance at various heights, like those cities in Yemen that climb up hillsides of dark rock. To arrive at his destination, he must now walk steadily uphill. Yankee Stadium stands like a Coliseum in one of those fantastical cities that in a thousand years will lie crumbling in the middle of a desert, or buried by a tropical jungle that will spread as temperatures rise and the ocean reaches the foothills of the Bronx, turning them into coastal cliffs. Dwarfed by the breadth of the esplanade and the height of the building, a man is taking a selfie in front of Yankee Stadium, stretching his arm and the selfie stick as much as he can. He smiles, straining all his facial muscles, raising the thumb of his free hand in a gesture of triumph or success.
Put Your Money Where the Miracles Are. Today is the day when the sun finally comes out, when it even feels a little warm if you are not in the shade and the wind dies down; the day when the snow begins to melt, the dirty snow, old and filthy like a pile of wool stained with mud, a kind of pumice stone riddled with grains of soot and burnt gasoline, pushed in piles against the sidewalk by the brutal blade of a plow to become an impassable barrier; trampled, puddled into dark lagoons; snow that seems to decompose instead of melting, gradually revealing as it does what lies concealed beneath its lofty shroud, a days-old archaeological deposit that emerges now without need of excavation, no one has to dig it up or classify it, half-buried still, embedded in a substance that no longer corresponds to the word “snow” but is rather a volcanic ash, the burnt detritus of a new Vesuvius, trapping in its matrix the complete compendium of a civilization’s material signs. A stark air of extinction clings especially to things that have only partially emerged: a woolen glove, like a hand coming out of the earth, a Dunkin’ Donuts plastic coffee cup with a straw still sticking out through the lid, a box of Marlboros with just the flip-top showing, a ghastly toilet scrubber, the broken skeleton of an umbrella, a bird cage, fortunately without a dead bird inside, a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken with a few leftover pieces nibbled by rats, a whole rat, still frozen, emerging from the snow, some dog shit, a woolen cap, a plastic fork, a crushed pigeon, a baby diaper, a sponge full of hairs, a microwave, the black suction cup of a toilet plunger, thousands of cigarette butts. Streams of dirty water flow along the curb as the snow begins to melt, dragging away small objects to the sewer grates. The wind disperses them, lifting plastic bags up in the air, snatching at the tattered shreds of plastic on the branches of a tree, branches that are bare and black but that will flower overnight as soon as it gets warmer, and the sun shines a little brighter, and everything is toppled and transformed again.
Out of the Ordinary. Just as the space around him is now wider, sounds and images have grown more powerful. The memory of seagulls and the hazy morning light in which the walk began is now so distant in time that it seems part of a different life, an earlier era, moistness, fog, like sense impressions left behind in someone else’s memory. Each step requires greater vigor now because the path goes steadily uphill. You have to look at things more closely because the colors have intensified, the words you read or hear are more vehement: a yellow sign on a red ground, a blue sign painted over a brick wall, covering it completely, as brazen as an urgent demand. Now you hear people speaking loudly in Mexican or Caribbean Spanish. The city has boosted its colors and multiplied its voices and turned up the volume. Hip-hop beats, bachatas and reggaeton blast onto the street from auto shops and secondhand tire stores. Cars drive by playing deafening music with the windows down. Over Jerome Avenue run the elevated tracks, and each time a train goes by a rhythmic clatter is unleashed that shakes the earth and drowns out every sound. Beneath the tracks you walk as in a shady portico barred with stripes of light. The raging storm of clanging metal repeats every few minutes. Sounds and colors are equally strident. Mexican workers wave their arms outside the auto shops and tire stores, lifting colorful signs above their heads with low-price offers to attract passing cars. The sudden novelty of this other world makes all the earlier worlds traversed over the past few hours recede in time. At the corners where the subway stops, crowded African, Indian and Caribbean bazaars spread at the foot of the iron stairs. There are no more Starbucks and very few banks. He realizes it has been a long time since he saw a yellow cab go by. There are more botanicas and hair salons and ethnic food places than there are cellphone stores. Smells are as excessive and intoxicating as colors and sounds. Elsa la Reyna del Chicharrón. El Gran Valle Restaurante Lechonera. Bizcocho Dominicano de 3 Leches. Bizcocho Dominicano para Cada Ocasión. Las 3 Sirenas Ricos Tacos al Carbón. Gordito’s Fresh Mex. La Esquina Caribeña.
The Greatest Visionary Medium and Healer. Jerome Avenue smells of roast pig, rotisserie chicken, burnt fat, rubber tires, gasoline, melted cheese on a Subway sandwich. It smells of McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Domino’s Pizza, baked potatoes and roast yuca. At the entrance to each restaurant, there are big color photographs of dishes gleaming with sauces and with melted fat, their inordinate abundance paired in each promotional picture with a two-liter bottle of Pepsi. It smells of fast food and Caribbean food and chicken manure. Live Poultry National Chicken Market. The smell of manure from the stores selling live chickens is as dizzying as the deafening cackle. In a shed outside an auto repair shop, red-crested roosters pace arrogantly among the stacks of tires. The tire stores are like Egyptian temples, deep halls with colonnades and walls and narrow passageways of piled-up tires of every size, huge trailer-truck tires rising in cyclopean stacks, the tiny figures of the probably illegal immigrants who work there moving among them. They toil in groups, removing tires from a car, installing tires, screwing in a fender, taking apart entire cars for scrap. The hammering and the cackle of birds and the pulsing bachatas and reggaeton, as well as a Julio Iglesias song with backup singers and violins, are all drowned by the crashing sound of metal that comes from above each time the subway passes on and on like a roaring waterfall.
Help Us Find You. Rooms for rent. Cuachimalco Flowers. Pentecostal Church of Christ of the Antilles. Christ Is Coming. Loco Sam Cógelo Fiao Buy Now Pay Later. Every bit of space is taken by a sign. Dominican Hair & Barber Shop. Jehanni Hair Salon & Nails Color Drops Duck-Feet Nails Eyelashes Eyebrows. Jesus the Way the Truth and the Life. Barbecue Chicken Breakfast Sandwich. Handwritten signs taped to a lamppost, flashy posters with busy pictures of music bands, an advertisement for a Sunday dance. International Charro Show. Los Rayos de Oaxaca Here for the First Time from Beautiful Oaxaquita. Nigeria Express. Send Money Fast to Ecuador Honduras Guatemala. Vivero Bronx Live Poultry. Pague Aquí Todos sus Billes. Rincón Supremo Lechonero. Pay All Your Bills Here. El Original Conjunto Mar Azul. Your Dream Figure Lose Weight Pounds & Inches. Los Preferidos Jorge Rodríguez and His Band.
The Lord’s Voice Cries to the Cities. Movers Junk Removal. Empeños Pawn 24 hours. Wait no longer be at your ideal weight in just hours. La Encantadora Jennifer and her DJ Jhovanny Jhovanny. Zacarías Ferreira and Frank Reyes Together Just One Night for a Historic Concert. Frank Reyes and Zacarías Ferreira are dressed in skipper’s jackets and caps, spreading their arms wide in front of a Caribbean seascape with a cruise ship in the offing. La Encantadora Jennifer is a woman with thick wavy hair tumbling in voluptuous extensions over a large bosom in a low-cut dress that opens like a balcony beneath her. Best of the Best Bachata El Grupaso LTP the Cyclone of Bachata. Santiago Cruz Interplanetary Tour. Chiqui Bombón Life Tastes like Fruit. Sunday Matinée Yiyo Sarante’s Official Farewell. Bucket of beer $10. Bottles $80. The Lord of Bachata. But neither the solo artists nor the bands in their hats and outfits nor Chiqui Bombón nor Encantadora Jennifer stand out in the posters as much as the DJs in their insolent glory: a haughty look behind black or mirrored lenses, silver jackets on bare chests, buzz cuts, braids, sideways hats, fanciful names like those of Mexican wrestlers. DJ Chulo Jay. DJ Sobrino. DJ Perverso. DJ Krazzy Loco. DJ El Yefry. DJ Lobo.
San Rafael Botanica and Dispensary. The botanicas are like baroque chapels bursting with a profusion of imagery, crammed with the assorted junk and tackle of every cult and miracle. The archangels Michael and Raphael brandish their swords and step on Satan’s serpent head. Figures made of plaster or plastic look like a mix between calendar saints and Marvel superheroes. Victor Florencio the Visionary Child Prodigy of the Bronx. Retail and wholesale distribution of a wide variety of religious articles. Anais Fernández spiritual Advisor. The Virgin of Guadalupe, the Virgin of Lourdes, the Virgin of Fatima, the elephant god Ganesha, a cheerful Buddha with a bursting belly, Shiva with his wheel of arms, a black Christ on the cross, an Indian medicine man holding a pipe, St. Martin de Porres, St. John Paul II, a Darth Vader haloed like a saint, a Santa Muerte holding a skeleton Baby Jesus in its arms, The Lion King. In the window of the San Rafael Botanica and Dispensary there is a life-size Ecce Homo with sores and lash marks and a baroque tangle of rancorously twisted thorns digging into his brow. Instead of being tied to a column, he leans piteously on a pair of golden crutches.
If You See Something, Say Something. Everything changes at every moment. Plump Hispanic women holding children by the hand and then a moment later beautiful African or Pakistani or Bangladeshi women whose faces are framed and emphasized by veils. He no longer feels himself walking. He is nothing but the rhythm of his steps and the tracking shot of his gaze. He has no bonds or memories anymore, no ties, nowhere to return, no life left vacant in which to reassume his place. All eyes, all ears. Nothing but eyes and ears. He walks along Jerome Avenue as he walked along Frederick Douglass Boulevard before, and Martin Luther King Boulevard before that, and at earlier times along a shady stretch of lower Broadway, or Menéndez Pelayo Avenue in Madrid, or Oxford Street, or streets in Paris and Berlin that were known to Walter Benjamin, or down the rue des Beaux-Arts in the steps of Oscar Wilde. A blank space, suddenly, a black hole after the botanicas, the poultry markets, the hair salons and the auto shops: a single-story building that takes up an entire block, a kind of tumulus without window or sign, a black hole, gray-walled, as dreary as a prison or a grave, as nondescript, the specific inhumanity of America’s official architecture, a building that conceals itself, refusing to display a window or a narrow slit or as much as a name to the outside world, a perfect bureaucratic barrow, probably correctional, with cameras in every corner. A place as impervious to bills or to any visual marks as it is to sound; with walls like pumice stone, giving back no light and swallowing sound. There is a glass door, but it is dark inside. You can see a patch of bare linoleum and a withered ficus—the kind of tragic presence you discover suddenly, a potted plant in a corner of an airport. There is a line of people waiting at the door. Each is isolated from the rest by a certain amount of space on the sidewalk and by a particular form of visible affliction. An obese woman in a wheelchair sucks on a straw from a plastic bucket with the Wendy’s logo. Her hair is dirty, and she wears old-fashioned glasses with thick lenses. Another woman, in a miniskirt and fishnet stockings, twisted high heels, knees pressed together against the cold, dyed blond hair. The one in front of her lifts a cigarette to her mouth and half her teeth are missing. A man with a shaved head and pale blue eyes, his neck entirely covered in tattoos, his hands and knuckles tattooed as well with gothic letters. Among all the brown, copper-colored, foreign laboring people on Jerome Avenue, only the ones waiting on that line are visibly white and native-born. Only they stand motionless, pale as zombies, gaunt as corpses in some cases and in others buried in the quicksand of their own obesity. They wait for something and stare into the void. Whatever they are waiting for, as well as the affliction that has brought them here, has some relation to this barren building, to the grim radiance of its architecture.
This Building Is Only for Tenants and Their Guests. And here it comes, trudging up the narrow sidewalk, the slow procession of the hooded and the ragged, pushing supermarket carts, men and women, though it can be hard to tell them apart, just as it is hard to tell apart the young from the old, the drunk from the merely destitute, dragging their feet, holding the carts as they ease them down the curb to keep the bags of plastic bottles and empty soda cans from toppling down. At the entrance to a supermarket, they will put them into a recycling machine, a penny apiece, or they will sell them at redemption centers where you can see, beyond a darkened entryway, in high naves with metal roofs, mountains of bottles and cans, of plastic containers, pierced by dusty shafts of sunlight coming in through the skylights. They had to walk here, because their cargo prevents them from riding the subway. They come from all over the Bronx, perhaps from Harlem, or even farther south. They resemble Eskimos, or Inuit, bundled up and hooded in their jackets and coats, in heavy boots and gloves, their faces burnt and blackened by the cold, red with drink, a pair of wet beady eyes behind a ski mask or a scarf, their bodies bent double by the habit of rummaging in garbage cans.
If You See Something. There is a bracing sense of imminent arrival; a nearness in which his attention to objects, faces, voices and smells acquires a dreamlike precision. There is a sense of faltering fatigue, of dizzying overabundance, relieved only by a parallel sense of nearly complete impersonality. At first, during the walk, consciousness grows silent. Then it remains suspended. Finally it disappears. You give yourself so entirely to everything external that you end up, for long stretches of time, for hours, being practically no one. The riches of the world are better preserved in an empty house. The street is not a path to follow but a current carrying him along. He is led by his footsteps, not by his volition; his motion is governed by the cerebellum with the same automated and primitive efficiency that regulates his heartbeat and his breathing. He has been walking for hours at the same steady pace, and it is also like sitting by a window in a train, watching everything go by without the least effort.
Experience the Spell. There is a widening of space, a brightness, as he leaves behind Jerome Avenue and the elevated subway tracks. New Fordham Road is the penultimate stage of his route. Fordham was the name of the village—or of the loose grouping of farms and meadows—where Edgar Allan Poe came to live with his wife and her mother. The light of the sun transfigures everything after so many days of grayness. Rills of water trickle from the eaves as the snow begins to melt. The sidewalks widen in the sun, space itself seems larger. As at a crossroads in the ancient world, an encampment of vendors spreads at the intersection of Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse of the Bronx. After the long uphill climb, the Bronx opens into a wide plain, a kind of Central Asian plateau traversed by trade routes stretching away in all directions. In the far distance of the Grand Concourse there are views of continental solitudes, bluish silhouettes of towers, like those deceptive domes and minarets that rose before De Quincey’s eyes during an opium trance. Looking closely, you can see the pencil profile of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State, but they are not as tall or as thin anymore as the new luxury towers of the inconceivably rich, the unseen lords and masters of the Earth.
We Have a Lot to Tell You. In solitude, real and imagined worlds begin to mingle. Under the effects of opium, De Quincey glimpsed at the end of dirty London streets the golden domes and spires of a mosque gleaming in the sun with a blinding light. There is a breadth to the Grand Concourse like that of an urbanized Communist capital, a horizon of tall buildings terraced like Tibetan monasteries. At the top of a huge brick tower there is a broken clock. Every window on every floor is boarded up. Many years ago he saw an identical tower in a dream that he never forgot. It was night in the dream, and the tower was crowned by a glowing red star. Somebody’s voice said in his ear: “That is the star of the Bronx.”
Travel Through Sound. He has come to a place in a dream. A caravansary somewhere on the Silk Road. On the street stalls, cheap fabrics, multicolored hats and scarves of fake silk flash in the sun and wave in the wind. Tongues mingle under the canopies and so do the heavy scents of food and of perfumes brought by merchants from distant lands. Women in high Mesopotamian headdress sit majestically on plastic stools next to their stands. There is an immemorial commerce of brisk gestures and loud haggling cries. The poor come to this place looking for provisions, for merchants who speak their own language and will sell them things that smell and taste of the worlds they left behind. The same stand sells bead necklaces, seed necklaces, gold hoops and earrings, fake African sculpture, flip-flops, cellphone chargers, cellphone covers. English is just one more in the riotous Babel of tongues efficiently and summarily spoken in heavy accents. Much more common is the luscious Spanish of Santo Domingo, Mexico, Ecuador and Cuba. “Le pregunté qué tú quieres y ella me dijo que su mayor prioridad en este mundo son las uñas.” (“I said honey what do you want, and she said her biggest priority in this world are nails.”) On the sidewalk, a group of old Cuban men is playing dominos in the sun, listening to Celia Cruz on a big boombox of the kind kids with a supple step and a mean look used to carry on their shoulders at full blast in the eighties. The old men are talking about someone who is a súper but wants to resignar because the guys in his bilding put trash down the toilet and make his life hell. They are on a sidewalk in the Bronx, but they could just as well be sitting outside a café in Havana. A separate conversation is taking place at the same time between the dry clicking sounds of the dominos and the high honeyed voice of Celia Cruz. “Como era millonario, qué digo, multimillonario, billionario, ese hombre ya lo tenía todo y lo único que le faltaba ganar era la oficina más poderosa del mundo.” “Fue el papá de él que le dejó una inmensa fortuna.” (“He was a millionaire, you know, a multimillionaire, a billionaire, so he had everything, that man did, and all that was left for him to win was the most powerful office in the world.” “It was his daddy left him a huge fortune.”)
Trying to Forget His Nightmare. In the Bronx, the worst nightmare of the yellow-haired megalomaniac came true. Still standing on the Grand Concourse are the monumental buildings of a civilization that fell mysteriously into decay and was abandoned by its original inhabitants: banks with columned porticos, large stores with Art Deco towers and façades, movie theaters that look like Roman baths or like basilicas. Tribes of strange-speaking, dark-skinned, slant-eyed people of short and rugged build overran the borders, occupying buildings so solidly made that they did not fall into ruin even after centuries of decay. In abandoned movie theaters, they set up their places of worship and celebration; in what had been department stores with tall mirrors and carpeted stairs and burnished counters, they crammed their food stands and their stalls of cheap merchandise. They lit bonfires in public gardens to hold their primitive feasts. The wide, solemn sidewalks were filled with their teeming crowds, their cluttered stands of cheap fake goods and their strange music which was often deafening, vulgar, always a little threatening. Where an old, distinguished business used to stand, a bank, a law firm, there was now a pawnshop, a greasy restaurant, a beauty shop for women who wore flamboyant hairstyles and long artificial nails in garish colors. On the plains of the Bronx, in sight of the city, which is still a blue and chimerical island far in the distance, the barbarian tribes have set up their camps. Each morning, very early and still in darkness, the barbarians descend on the city. They take underground trains that go beneath the river and elevated trains that shake with metallic fury as they cross a bridge. They go there to serve food, pick up garbage bags in restaurants, cook, scrub dishes in airless basements that turn into ovens in the summer months, sweep the streets, open car doors, wipe old people’s asses and care for their Alzheimer’s, look after children, climb the scaffolding outside a building, raise skyscrapers that reach ever higher, deliver food on bicycles through blizzards, open ditches in the asphalt with pneumatic drills, breathe toxic substances without masks and to work twenty stories up without insurance, to dump chicken parts into a deep fryer, drive a taxi for twelve or fourteen hours straight, and never to be able to get sick. The same trains will carry them back at night, exhausted, sleeping in their seats or on their feet, holding onto a subway pole so as not to fall asleep and crash to the ground.
Remember Your Hands. Among them all, he is no more than an observer, a camera, an iPhone’s audio recorder accidentally left on inside a pocket, tapping rhythmically against a set of keys or a pistachio shell. Since the phone is in the right-hand pocket, the steps on that side can be heard much louder, as in the limping walk of a crippled, stubborn man, seconds and minutes changing ceaselessly on the cellphone screen in an endless metamorphosis of numbers rising at different speeds. Someone, later, may be able to study this recording. It will be possible to reconstruct much of his path from the footage taken by police surveillance cameras and by the cameras outside the banks: a face that is hard to distinguish in the shadow of the hat, between the raised lapels of his coat on that cold morning, on the long, timeless day of the walk; a figure lost among the rest as they come and go, swift or slow, pushing baby strollers or supermarket carts with plastic bags full of beverage containers that tremble and seem about to fall, a tinkling of glass bottles and metal cans. All of this will be recorded. There will be a precise record of the moment he appeared at each corner: the hour, minute, second and tenth of a second; the route traced by the GPS on his phone, a long diagonal beginning at South Ferry, then north, up Broadway, east at 106th, north at 125th.
A New Species Is Born. He is a secret agent not from a distant country but from an earlier time, taking note of everything that for people living in the present is normal to the point of invisibility. His mission is so urgent and so inexhaustible that he can never rest. The training he received allows him to move unnoticed among the natives and handle their everyday devices with sufficient ease. To preserve a perfect cover, he will allow himself no contact with his superiors or with the command post back in his own time. Carefully and surreptitiously he gathers all the information that seems necessary. The future is an inaccessible and probably hostile country about which one must learn as much as possible. Once there, an agent knows what grave danger he risks, how difficult it will be to return. The progress of technology will enable us to travel into the future without adequately resolving the problem of return. Harder than sending a spaceship to Mars is bringing it back with its crew safe and sound. Perhaps he is trapped now in this present time, unable to return to his own which is in fact not so remote, just twenty or twenty-five years back. He could never have imagined just how terrifyingly exotic this new world would be, more categorically distant than North Korea, Babylon or Tenochtitlán. One of his assigned tasks would have been to study future climates, temperatures, the state of the oceans and the atmosphere, verifying whether certain predictions came true and learning possible preemptive lessons. The expedition has been undertaken with the utmost secrecy. But something went wrong, an accident, an oversight, and now he knows he cannot go back, all possible escape routes have been blocked, hidden passageways, locked doors in dark basements. Now, banished for life to another time as to a different planet, he perseveres nevertheless in his task out of professional pride or simply because he enjoys it, living in calm exile, in an inner solitude that will never break anymore even if he partly begins to adopt the accent and the gestures of this other country, not much more of a foreigner in it really than any of the men and women he meets among the stalls of Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse, just one more among them.
Interactive Maps and 3D Tours of the Planet. When he was living in the white wooden shack that is now barely visible across the wide avenue, Edgar Allan Poe wrote a short story that took place exactly two hundred years later, in 2048. By then there are hot air balloons that can rise a hundred miles in the air and carry four hundred passengers at speeds of over 150 miles per hour. Poe was captivated by hot air balloons. One of his most commercially successful stories was a well-documented and completely false narrative of a crossing of the Atlantic in just three days in a maneuverable balloon. It was from Poe that Jules Verne learned the literary allure of a balloon flight as well as that of polar expeditions. He read Poe in Baudelaire’s French translations. No one knows where the seed of literature will fall or along what paths. The photographer Nadar, who was friends with both Verne and Baudelaire, became a balloon pilot and an aerial-show impresario. The balloon was as prodigious an invention as photography. When Baudelaire was living in Brussels, ailing and embittered, Nadar came to town to perform several balloon ascents. He urged Baudelaire to join him on one of them, but Baudelaire refused.
To Create Something That Will Last in Time. The white cottage, the tall, leafless oak trees that surround it and the park spreading to one side impose on the eye a suggestion of space that effaces or suspends everything else around it, a neutral void beyond the edges of a photograph. The wide concourse and the big apartment buildings vanish into a landscape of farms and meadows, into an open sky stretching to far woods on the horizon, and glimpses of the sea. From this elevated ground you can see the island tapered like a ship, pointing its prow toward the sea and bound by its two rivers: you would need a powerful spyglass to make out the church spires and the ship masts in the far distance. More than half the island is covered in fields, farms, pastures, wooded hills traversed by streams, paths traced over the course of centuries by native tribes that are now vanished, decimated. The house is in an area of farms and meadows that must have changed little since the time of the Dutch settlers. Lying so far from the city, it seems a place of refuge or of strict retirement from the world. A writer who spent his whole life tumbling from one city to the next, fleeing creditors, seeking out newspaper commissions, editors to publish his books, moneyed patrons to help him pay his debts and start the journal he never stopped dreaming about, thr writer who lost himself occasionally in nights of alcohol-induced delirium and amnesia now wants to live in the countryside, far from the uproar of the city and the hounding of his enemies, surely, too, from the lure of drink. Poe lives with his wife Virginia and with her mother who is just as much a mother to him who lost his own when he was three. Mrs. Clemm calls him “Eddy,” and he calls her “Muddy.” She is his father’s sister. Virginia is his first cousin. When they married, she was thirteen. Their life together in the tiny house seems vaguely like a strange confabulation among characters in a tale, defenseless, isolated from the world in a little hut in the woods where now and then a stranger comes.
Terror Now Has Its Own Theater. They thought the country air, and the fresh food and milk would help Virginia’s health. For years she has suffered from tuberculosis, coughing to the point of choking, spitting up blood. In the immaculate order and cleanliness of the cottage, the poverty and deprivation of their lives is even more evident. The reason the fireplace is so clean is that they cannot afford to buy wood. Virginia spends her days ailing on a thin straw mattress. She covers herself with a spotless sheet, washed and mended so many times as to be nearly transparent, and with her husband’s old military overcoat from his days as a West Point cadet. There is little else in the house: a shelf with books, a cage that held a bird or a few birds, a family cat. Virginia places the cat on her lap over the coat for a little more warmth. She has a round, girlish face, flushed pink with constant fever. When Poe and his family lived in the house, there were cherry trees all around. In the mornings, if he does not take the train into the far blue haze of the city, to try to earn a little money or see if someone will publish a short story, a poem, things written anyhow, cribbed from others or from something else he wrote years before, Poe works in the garden or goes for a walk on a country path.
The Seer Edgar Poe. You have to climb some wooden steps and ring a doorbell next to the closed door. Nothing can be heard inside. Not even the doorbell. Perhaps it is closed today. Who is going to visit this miniature house so far away, what tourist, what lover of literature or devotee of Poe? Europeans, probably, people who were drawn to literature as teenagers by reading his stories about hidden treasure and murder, about people who wake up to find themselves trapped in a casket, about ruined mansions in the fog of a desolate moor. There were horror films where seeing the name Edgar Allan Poe in the opening credits was already a promise or an invocation. On the shelves of stationery stores deep in provincial Spain, you would find editions of Poe’s stories with skulls on the cover, with a candle dripping over the skull. Those covers were like lurid movie posters: black as night, red as blood. The stories had not been translated into Spanish directly from the original English but from those French translations to which Baudelaire, more than a century earlier, had devoted as much passion as to his own writing.
He Had to Take Refuge in Mystery. This room on the ground floor of the cottage is where Virginia died. Virginia Clemm Poe. She was too weak by then to climb the steep set of stairs to the upper bedroom. Although there is now a period bed in the room, it is very likely that Virginia died on a pallet placed directly on the wide planks of this very floor. It is chilling to step on it. You want to make no noise so as not to disturb her in her illness, in her death. Poe had spent his life writing obsessively about very beautiful and very sick young women, about the beauty of dead women who can come back to life when they are already in the grave, or take possession, like vampires, of the soul of any woman who tries to take their place.
And to the Cordial Warmth of Drunkenness in That World. A docent shows him around the house with a flurry of gestures in a voice better suited to the large halls of a museum. Standing very close to his visitor, in a small room, under a low roof, he speaks as if they were standing at opposite ends of a museum lobby and he needed to raise his voice. It is an enthusiastic voice, of course, full of possibilities, a baritone, the voice of a guide leading tour groups through a museum or a cathedral. In fact one must stoop to go through the doors and even more when going up the stairs, which are very narrow and twist and turn to make the most of a reduced space. “People say, how small they used to be,” the guide explains, “but it’s not true, they were just like us. Poe was a tall man, five-foot eight-inches. Their roofs were low to save on building materials and for better heating.” He is a young man, an enthusiast, whose height and professional ambitions are out of proportion to this tiny place, this single visitor who came today, a foreigner no doubt, a little frightened, a little daunted by the legend of the Bronx, though secretly priding himself in being able to refute it.
If You Fall You Will Be Trampled. On the landing there is a cut-out of Poe taken from one of those daguerreotypes in which he seems so deeply wretched. It is actual size, and according to the guide very popular with visitors to the house who pose next to it for a picture, draping an arm over Poe’s shoulder with a big smile, best buddies with the poor dead man with a funereal face, that is like the face of a prematurely buried man in one of his own short stories or in an English movie from the sixties, shot in brazen Technicolor and featuring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and an actress in a low-cut dress who is screaming in terror, yielding already to the vampire’s bite.
And if You Slip and Fall in the Water. It is a poorly funded house museum, part of the Bronx Historical Society. Entrance is five dollars, and the guide is the only employee. Upstairs, in a room with a pitched roof, there is an oil portrait of Poe. It looks very much like one of those portraits of malevolent figures who have such an important role in the horror movies of the Hammer Film production company, portraits that can come to life or reveal a likeness to a ghastly forebear. Only a truly low-budget film will feature a portrait like this one, in that frame. Movies of that sort were filmed in Spain in the seventies, featuring and often directed by an actor named Jacinto Molina whose stage name was Paul Naschy. The guide stands in front of the painting and talks about it without turning to it, as if he were explaining Las Meninas or The Night Watch, as if describing by dint of a prodigious memory every detail of a cathedral altarpiece to which he kept his back turned. “This portrait was personally bequeathed to the Edgar Allan Poe House by its author. He lives in the Bronx and is a well-known member of the community, a war veteran. He is currently ninety-three.”
They Will Toss Their Sandwich Wrappers on You. Upstairs in the main bedroom, there is a large flat-screen TV and several rows of plastic chairs. There is a low, narrow window. You have to bend down to look through it. With a flourish, the guide reaches for a remote control. “It is now time for our audiovisual experience.” Though he is speaking to just one visitor, he keeps his gaze slightly unfocused, as if addressing a large group whose other members for some reason are not visible. The visitor says with cautious politeness that it is not necessary, that he only came to see the house and not the audiovisual experience. “But it’s included,” the guide says, baffled, at first, then disappointed, dismayed, with a little pity as well for this man who does not know how to get his money’s worth or properly value what he is missing. They are both speaking English by now though they know their native language is Spanish. The guide’s name is Glenn, and he is almost certainly Dominican. Downstairs, in the room with the fireplace, there is an area cordoned off with red rope to keep visitors from entering. But on the other side of the rope there is only a rocking chair and a small writing desk. Glenn says that Poe used to sit on the rocking chair. Perhaps the only thing that is truly genuine about the house is the meagerness of the space and its absolute deprivation, which none of the period details to which Glenn feels such defensive attachment can mitigate.
No One Can Picture the Loneliness. It is cloudy now, and the light coming in through the windows is a pale gray. A dead light from the past. He would have liked Glenn to leave him alone at some point, to stop explaining things. He never truly sees anything unless he is alone, in silence. He goes over to a window, and Glenn stays close to him. He hears him say at his back that this is not where the house originally stood. It used to be nearby, higher up, on the side of a hill. They moved it in 1913, to save it when an apartment building went up in its original location. How strange, among all the things that were lost, that something this fragile would survive. Glenn says that from the porch Poe would have been able to see the Long Island Sound.
Rethink How You Live. After Virginia’s death, Poe fell into a state of lethargy or calm. Perhaps being in mourning was a relief after years of endless anxiety about her health, all those sleepless nights hearing her cough, trying to breathe, vomiting blood on the sheets. People would ask how he was doing, and he said, “I’m well, very well, better than ever.” He wrote and published in journals much less than before. But this decline in his literary fortunes would have been no worse than the ceaseless siege of poverty. A friend went on a walk with him through the city and saw his patched boots nearly fall apart as he gave a jump to cross a muddy street. Poe himself had contributed to his own misfortune as effectively as his worst enemy. He had a suicidal talent for for falling out with those who could have helped him and turning viciously against his protectors. A cartoonist drew a picture of him preparing to write a scathing review of a book not with a pen but with a tomahawk. He had offended with equal virulence those who deserved it and those who did not. Perhaps because he was ashamed of his poverty, the generosity of those who helped him gave rise to a gratitude that would soon sour into rancor. Far less talented writers achieved much greater success and earned amounts that were unimaginable to him. Others had stumbled from birth into privileges that were denied to him. Others inherited fortunes, houses, high positions. The popularity of some of his stories and poems had enriched the owners of the journals in which they were published. Professional reciters could fill theaters declaiming “The Raven.” He had been paid nine dollars for the poem. He was told he had many readers in England, France, even Russia. Sometimes he was sent a clipping from a foreign newspaper and he would keep it and take pride in showing it. Despairing of the hope that justice would ever be done to him, he squandered his strength on sad literary vendettas, ferocious reviews of second-rate books in which his refined taste and critical sense were tainted with resentment.
I Know the Horror of Open Eyes. The most abiding feeling in his life was abandonment: a drunk, absent father, a mother dead of tuberculosis in abject poverty when he was three. Once, toward the end, he wrote in a letter: “I have many occasional dealings with Adversity, but the want of parental affection has been the heaviest of my trials.” On the day he walked out of this house for the last time, bound on a trip he thought would last several months, he brought with him a miniature portrait of his mother. He wrote on the back the date and a few words in a tiny hand: “My adored mother, E.A.P.” The woman in the portrait looks like a teenage heroine from a Jane Austen novel. The wealthy merchant who took him in never adopted him and left him nothing in his will. Poe was a déclassé, like Baudelaire, De Quincey, Melville and Benjamin: the blows of fortune, along with their own tumultuous characters, left them without a stable place in the social order or in the commercial and property-owning class to which they belonged—to which Poe could have belonged if his guardian had been more patient or generous with him, or Poe himself more tractable. They practiced, in addition, a precarious and socially suspect profession associated with a disordered and disreputable life, a useless trade pursued by people of no practical sense, as dubious and extravagant as the circus or the theater, fitting no productive or commercial category and failing to ensure even the bare minimum of security and respectability that even a secretarial position could provide. Black sheep, reprobates, failed heirs, useless layabouts, derelict dandies, bankrupt rentiers, proletarians dressed in bourgeois boots and overcoats, in patched-up overcoats, in boots that are falling apart, skilled in obsolete crafts and in lonely meticulous trades, ruined and tossed aside by industrial production and mass commerce.
Giving Himself an Injection of Leprosy. Poe and Virginia’s mother stayed in the tiny house like a pair of strange orphans, living as aunt and nephew, son- and mother-in-law, mother and son. Poe was not so much a widower as an orphan, mourning a wife who was only thirteen when they married and a first cousin, a childish, asexual sister more than a wife, now dead, buried in a nearby cemetery that he visited often, sometimes at night, in shirtsleeves, or throwing over his shoulders the military overcoat that must have still retained her scent. From her bed, Mrs. Clemm, Muddy, would hear him leave the house and shut the door. Then she stayed up until he returned, always fearing the worst, that he would lose his mind or vanish like so many times before and reappear several days later in a drunken stupor. Sometimes instead she would hear the sound of his steps as he paced up and down the echoing porch. On clear winter nights, the whole sky must have been a dark and blazing dome. This far from the city there would have been no gaslight, no haze of factory or chimney smoke to cloud the view.
Exactly What You Wish For. Downstairs, by the entrance, where the kitchen used to be, there is a modest stand with publications and souvenirs: postcards, keychains, prints where the house looks like a Gothic mansion on a stormy night. Glenn keeps everything in perfect order. The money he collects for the entrance fee goes into a wooden box with several compartments. Each time he sells a ticket, a postcard or a souvenir, he draws a little cross in the corresponding box on a form. He accepts credit card payments with a little dismay. He must bring out a rather ancient device, make sure there is a connection. Poe looks out from the row of postcards on the stand with successive expressions of misery and grief, trapped two centuries ago in the frozen, brutal faithfulness of a daguerreotype.
The Punctual Handkerchief of Parting. In the general imagination, Poe wears a small black mustache just as Mozart or Bach wear wigs, Dracula a black cape and a tailcoat, Superman a pair of blue tights, Marilyn Monroe a platinum-blond hairdo, Karl Marx a prophet’s beard. In fact, Poe only wore a mustache during the last two years of his life. In earlier portraits, sketched or painted in oil, he wears long sideburns that reach down nearly to his chin, but no mustache. He is a complete stranger: a dignified young man with a kind, agreeable expression and big eyes that are wide open. Although he looks sensitive, perhaps a little lost in reverie, he could well be someone in a very different walk of life from literature: a lawyer, maybe, or rather a clerk, someone leading a peaceful life but having no great prospects, perhaps from lack of initiative. There is sadness in his eyes, even abandonment, but not fear, much less a pall of misery.
You Will Take Invisible Pictures. The first photograph, a daguerreotype, was taken in 1847. It is his first portrait with a mustache. Less than a year had passed since Virginia’s death. It is a little mustache, clipped neatly at the corners of the mouth, Chaplinesque, with slightly twisted ends. The later pictures form a sequence as gradually dismal as Rembrandt’s self-portraits of old age and ruin and decay. Two of them were taken within days, in November of 1848. The third, which is also the last, dates to mid-September of 1849, just a few weeks before his death. In November 1848 Poe was in Providence, paying a visit to one of those widows with literary inclinations who were drawn to him and whom he occasionally courted in the hope of attaining through marriage a certain social and financial stability in life. They found him irresistible. He recited his poems in a whisper and copied them in his own hand with a special dedication. They were captivated by the lost, magnetic gaze of the widowed poet and by the manners of the Southern gentleman, his dignified elegance ennobled rather than spoiled by his obvious poverty. The legend of his nights of drink and ruin, which was not unfounded, added an attractively alarming quality to his ceremonious manners. He promised he would abstain from drinking. He behaved charmingly at social gatherings. Then he got savagely drunk, vanished for a whole week and everything was ruined.
Not to Know if You Are in This World. In the November 9 photograph he looks hung-over and filled with regret. His mustache, which is thicker now, accentuates the bitter grimace of his lips. His facial muscles seem contracted and collapsed. Around that time he took a large dose of laudanum as he boarded a train to Boston, and when he turned up several days later, he remembered nothing except terrifying hallucinations. In the November 13 picture he seems somewhat recovered, some of his dignity is back, but his general appearance is one of insurmountable despair. He is wearing the military coat with the big lapels, the one that kept Virginia warm. In each picture his forehead seems larger, more swollen, his hair dirtier and more plastered to his skull.
Longer Hydration for Your Eyes. Glenn sees his visitor off at the door. “It’s always nice when someone comes,” he says. “Weekends are busier, especially in summer, but during the week it can get a little lonely.” He admits with some regret that the two other houses where Poe lived, in Richmond and Baltimore, are larger and attract more visitors. He shivers, and he rubs his hands together at the door like the owner of a house eager to return to its domestic warmth. On June 20, 1849, Poe left this house for the last time. An anxious feeling of long confinement in a single place must have been as powerful as the need to earn some money. He intended to give public talks, to find journals that would accept his work again, to muster up subscribers for a literary journal he had envisaged for years, in chimerical detail: the font, the layout, the various sections, the list of contributors who would send pieces from abroad, the immediate success in sales, the money that this time no one would stint or steal from him. He only needed perseverance to find subscribers and an investing partner to set things in motion, nothing else.
To Flee Through the Streets, to Seek Shelter in the Upper Floors. He carried a briefcase or a valise with his lecture notes and a trunk full of books, manuscripts and a few changes of clothes packed by Mrs. Clemm. He told her as he was leaving that he regretted it; that he was afraid of not coming back; that he would write daily and send her money as he began to earn it. An outbreak of cholera had just been declared. That summer more than five thousand people died in New York. When Poe reached Philadelphia by train, cholera had spread there too. He fell sick. To ease his fever he took calomel, a compound of mercury. It made his gums bleed, and it caused confusion and also, he claimed, “cerebral congestion.” There is no reliable account of what happened in Philadelphia. It seems he ran into some acquaintances, and he got abysmally drunk with them. A few days later he was in jail, charged with drunkenness and disorderly conduct. One morning he turned up at the workshop of a printer and engraver known to him from earlier trips, John Sartain. Poe was wearing only one shoe. He said he had lost the trunk with his books and clothes and the briefcase with his lecture notes. He claimed he was fleeing from enemies who were trying to kill him. He had heard them on the train, carefully plotting his murder. They had followed him at night through the streets of Philadelphia. He needed to change his appearance so he could elude them. He asked Sartain for a razor to shave his mustache. His hands were trembling so badly that Sartain feared he would hurt himself, cut his own neck. Sartain cut his mustache with a pair of scissors.
Make Your Aspirations a Reality. Now his face seems strange again and naked. He asked to borrow some shoes, but Sartain could only provide him with a pair of slippers. In cloth slippers, without a mustache or a suitcase or a cent, or any judgment, Poe wanders through Philadelphia like a lost soul. He tells Sartain about some of the hallucinations he experienced in recent days. From the window of his cell, he would see a woman dressed in white calling out to him from the prison tower. The door of the cell would open and his enemies would bring in Mrs. Clemm with her hands tied behind her back. Two of the men would restrain him while the others began to mutilate Virginia’s mother with hatchets and saws: one foot, then another, then a leg up to the knee, a hand, the other hand. During brief spells of sanity, he writes letters to Mrs. Clemm begging her to come find him. Just as cruel is a different hallucination in which he sees the white cottage standing clearly before him with its cherry trees and knows the door will never again open to let him in.
Blood That Slowly Looks out of the Corner of Its Eye. In one way or another, with Sartain’s help, he manages to get to Richmond on June 14. Somehow he has recovered his trunk, though not his lecture notes. It is not a serious loss since he practically knows them by heart. In Richmond the cholera epidemic has subsided and public slave auctions have recommenced immediately with great success. Richmond is the city of Poe’s childhood and early youth. Unexpectedly he is renewed by being there again. The outcome of his harrowing trip has been a peaceful and pleasant return to the past. In Richmond, refined people with a taste for books are flattered to know that this old acquaintance of theirs is now a famous writer. He gives a few successful lectures. He recites “The Raven” in a hypnotic cadence. He reencounters a love of his early youth, Elmira Shelton, now a wealthy and attractive widow. They make plans to get married. Poe abstains entirely from drinking. He has finally found an admirer with deep pockets who is willing to fund his journal. Before the wedding, in late September, he must return to New York to arrange it all, to see to the journal, to let Mrs. Clemm know about this new life in which naturally there will be a place for her.
This Is the Time to Live. When Elmira says goodbye to her fiancé, he does not look well. She presses his hand and finds it hot with fever. The last daguerreotype is taken around this time. Poe is once again wearing a mustache. But he has more than ever a look of anguish and despair. His eyes are unfocused, his mouth contracted. His necktie, put on anyhow, is too tight around his neck. There is no relation between that face and the external facts of his life during those days in Richmond. He looks like a man in the grip of terror.
On a Single Day. We know he was in Baltimore on September 27. There was no reason for that stop. There are different accounts of his reappearance on October 3 after a gap of a few days. One of them says he was found unconscious in the gutter. According to another, a witness claims to have found him in a tavern during one of those corrupt election days when drunks were rounded up and taken to cast ballots. He is taken to a hospital. The doctor in charge of him is an educated, compassionate man who has read his work and recognizes him. His name is Dr. John Moran. Poe does now know where he is, has no idea how he got there or who brought him. Nor does he know where he got the filthy clothes he is wearing. Near dawn, his arms and legs begin to shake, and he lapses into delirium. He is drenched in sweat. He speaks and points to the wall as if he recognized people walking down the street, people who sometimes fill him with terror and other times with an urgent need to call out and be answered. He moves his legs as if to catch up with them. He repeats a name, Reynolds. To calm him, Dr. Moran says a good friend of his is coming from Baltimore to keep him company. Suddenly clear-headed, Poe looks him in the eye and says: “My best friend would be the man who gave me a pistol that I might blow out my brains.”
In Your Upturned Night. He spent six days in the hospital, going through spells of delirium and extreme exhaustion. On the walls of the room he saw shadows and faces. On the morning of Sunday, October 9, he grew very calm and quiet. Dr. Moran leaned down because he saw his lips move. He heard him say: “Lord help my poor soul.”
They Grow Like Mushrooms. He has left the house, and evening is coming on. The sun is still high, but there is a hint of dampness in the air and the shadows of the trees have lengthened over the gravel walks and the park’s ragged winter grass. He sat down to rest on a bench, to reconsider or to absorb what he has seen. He placed the satchel on his lap and opened it to look for an apple among the various papers, clippings, documents and folded maps. He bought it at the farmers’ market on Union Square who knows how many hours, how many streets, how many compressed lifetimes ago. The immediate past widens like the skies and avenues of the Bronx. It is a perfect apple, easy to hold in one hand, red, green, yellow, with a scent that seems to come from a deep wooden chest where the harvest is stored from one year to the next. He wipes it with the neatly folded handkerchief he keeps in his pocket. Leonard Cohen had a knack for folding his clothes when he packed or unpacked his luggage in a hotel room during a tour. He cleans the apple or rather he gives it a polish to bring out the colors in the cold, blond light of the late-winter sun. He takes a first hungry bite, and his mouth fills with a rich juice. On a nearby bench there is a flurry of young black women with small children talking and laughing loudly and showing each other their cellphones, their hands covered in long clip-on nails that in some cases are painted with the stars and stripes of the American flag. Schools are letting out. Down the paths that crisscross the park come Central American mothers with indigenous faces, holding hands with children bundled up in big hoods, like young Inuit, carrying their satchels on their backs. A homeless man goes by pushing a supermarket cart full of junk and rags, dragging his feet, leaving behind a smell of alcohol, urine, shit.
Alone I Wander Exhausted by the Rhythm. He never tires of gazing at the far horizon, the wide open sky of the Bronx. When he gets up, he becomes aware of the whole unexpected weight of his fatigue. He has wiped his hands and mouth with the handkerchief and put the apple core into an overflowing garbage can, making sure it would not roll to the ground. All around Poe’s cottage there are very tall leafless trees, oaks or maples. When he was alive they were cherry trees. He has to stuff his hands in his pockets and walk briskly to shake off the cold. As he nears the crossing of the Grand Concourse and Fordham Road again, he begins to return to the present. The cottage was a time capsule. Now reality returns as a loud, teeming scramble of busy lives and haggling commerce, vendors yelling over their merchandise and music pouring out of wide-open storefronts and cars that go by with the windows down. People buy and sell, people feed, people scrounge for shelter and sustenance in this hostile environment, improvising a portable version of the life they left behind. They play their music as loudly as possible. They open cheap markets that sell bright textiles, women’s veils, tight party dresses on wide-hipped, big-bosomed mannequins. They bring their hair salons for men and women specializing in African braids, extensions, relaxers, their fruit stands, their food carts, their street vendors yelling from the back of a van that has been turned into a counter. “Fish octopus shrimp fish octopus.” An ice-cream man goes by pushing a cart painted with the Ecuadorean flag and ringing a little bell. An indigenous woman with braids has placed a large pot of rice and beans in a supermarket cart. Puerto Rico Qué Rico. Next to the woman selling fried churros dusted with sugar there is another selling candied peanuts from a pushcart with a tin funnel that sends out puffs of fragrant smoke smelling of burnt caramel. On every corner a different Spanish accent. “Así soy yo, mi amor. Si no te gusta, ésta es mi vida. ¿Qué otra cosa podemos hacer?” (“That’s what I’m like, baby. If you don’t like it, that’s my life. What else can we do?”) Voices and melodies change and blend and so do the smells, the scent of corn, of beans, of fried chicken and roast pig. It is Fordham Road, and it is also Africa, Santo Domingo, Southeast Asia, the beautiful face of an Indonesian woman framed by a veil. It is rural Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, the Andes. With quick, polite gestures, he collects the ads and flyers that are offered at every step and that go into his overflowing pockets. He turns on the audio recorder so as not to miss any sound. He takes pictures of posters and jots down shop signs. In the bakery displays there are Barbie dolls in bell-shaped dresses that are birthday cakes. In a botanica there is a Christ on a cross made of seashells of all sizes that are painted white, and next to it a black goddess or priestess in Egyptian headdress holding in her open hands a gold snake with glass eyes.
Quick Cheap Divorce and Paperwork One Hour. Chicken, eggplant, pork. Okra. Chayote. Lula Seafood Fish Stew. Juan Peña Style Barber Shop. Juan Ángel Lezama El Coyote Pride of Oaxaca. Tina African Hair Braiding. Loans Empeños We Buy Gold Compramos Oro. Beauty Salón La Flaca. African Caribbean Market. Tacos Tortas Burritos Quesadillas Sopas Nachos Carnitas Huevos Rancheros Sopa de Marisco Chicken-Sandwich Enchiladas Steak and Onions Mexican Soda 2 Liter Bottle. Perfection Hair Salón Straightening Highlights Hair Extensions. Banco Azteca Wire Transfers. La Perla International-Latin-Food-Specialties and Seafood. Cow-Tendon Pork Chicken Fresh Goat. Specializing in Mexican Sodas. Send Money Anywhere in the World. Jesus Is the Path the Truth and the Life. Incredible Selection of Meats in One Place. Mango Tamarind Delicious Coconut Ice Cream. La Migra Los Magos del Norte La Banda Sinaloenese with Sergio Lizarán The Prodigy Final Farewell Singing All His Hits DJ Cholo Jay.
You Will Have a New Life. He begins to leave it all behind, to walk past it with his satchel and his sportsman’s or explorer’s cap, unmistakable from the back, anonymous Mr. Nobody, pausing here and there at the window of a botanica or a cellphone store that is blasting electronic Arabic music, a kind of thumping hip-hop blended with the floating chant of a muezzin. He switches sidewalks frequently, though mostly he tries to take advantage of the little sun that remains. He slows down to take pleasure in the warm smell of corn tortillas or in the variety of hairstyles offered on a sign for a Nigerian barbershop. Fordham Road goes gently east, downhill, sustaining in its course the rhythm of his steps despite his great fatigue. No matter how far he walks, the city will always spread farther, without end, past the Bronx and the iron bridges, the swamps, the far, low-lying neighborhoods of Queens. He goes deeper into the crowd, and at a certain moment he is suddenly lost from sight, in the blink of an eye, as abruptly as if he had gone down into the subway. Inside a coat pocket the voice recorder is still on: fire truck sirens or a police car will be heard, far away, or the steady rumble of the subway up above; then it all begins to fade, to grow distant, to pass away, all except the stubborn rhythm of his steps.
Come Live a Fitness Experience. I came to the city two months ago with a MacBook Air in my backpack and a suitcase full of notebooks, blank or covered in writing, and binders full of clippings and envelopes stuffed with all kinds of flyers, and pencil cases, erasers and sharpeners. I brought a phone to take pictures and to record conversations and signs as I walked down the street. Now, as I prepare to go back, every notebook is filled with writing, and there are yet more clippings in each binder, and a cylindrical cardboard box that once held a fancy flask of cologne is now the little chest where I keep the pencil stubs I have worn away. I am not sure if the task brought me here seeking its own completion or if it took advantage of this trip and turned it into a part of itself, imposing these two months of solitude and withdrawal just as it earlier imposed on me the habit of writing in pencil and filling every notebook from the very first to the very last page. The task began as an accidental distraction in my life and ended up taking it over entirely. Nor do I know if I came here under its influence or following a different impulse that remained initially concealed and has gradually come to light: the need to say goodbye. Consciousness brings to light a very small part of what happens in the mind. The will may be an illusion, and what is truly decisive may occur at depths known to us only through the equivocal evidence of dreams.
Venture into the World. You never know how many places you will have to go to, how many you will have to leave in order to appease the urge to keep looking for a new situation in life that will in fact turn out to be like all the earlier urges: some extraordinary thing that you cannot miss is waiting: a film, a book, a piece of music, a new love, a new town. You read a review, and you want to buy the book immediately; you feel oppressed by the quiet and comfort of home at mid-morning, and you yearn to go out, and you don’t know where; a newspaper article and some color photographs of a city make you want to go there, live there. It may be the same kind of urge that others feel for a new car, a cruise or a trip to a Caribbean resort, the same urge that makes people stand in line for a whole winter’s night so they can buy the newest cellphone.
Unexpected Dreams. This room, this desk by the window has been my office for the past two months. I have looked through this window for who knows how many hours and days over the past eight years. I have seen the bare branches of the gingko tree outside the window gradually covered in leaves in April. I have seen them turn yellow in November, casting a faint golden glow as dusk began to fall a little earlier with each passing day. March and early April have been unusually cold this time, and the leaves on the gingko have yet to sprout, just as the almond and the cherry trees along the river have yet to blossom. I will not be here when they finally emerge, fan-shaped leaves of a tender green, fluttering in the breeze, drunk with a rich sap that rises from the roots and with the physicochemical prodigy of photosynthesis.
See Art Everywhere. For several weeks, in the grayest days of February, a plastic bag was caught in a high branch of the gingko tree. It was one of those generic plastic bags they give out in every store, always with the same inscription: THANKS FOR SHOPPING WITH US. There was an ominous air to it, like a tattered rag, a flag, a black pennant for the triumphant invasion of plastic trash. On nearly every tree in the neighborhood, there is a bag or several plastic bags caught in the branches, some intact, others torn to shreds. Some have been there for so long that they are faded and frayed, shaking in the wind like Tibetan prayer flags. This particular black bag was directly in my line of sight when I looked out the window during my workday. It hung limp and abject when there was no wind. It shook and fluttered when the wind blew, swelling and rising like a captive balloon, or lashed during a storm by the snow and by those gusts of freezing rain that bite into the skin like needles and peck at the glass like furious birds. One night the wind roared and whistled so violently that I woke up at dawn and could not fall back asleep. When I looked out that morning, the bag was gone.
The Wait Is Over. I wanted to fill every page of every notebook. I covered them in penciled writing and with clippings that I pasted with a sense of contentment like that of a child or a craftsman, taking pleasure in my eyes and hands and in the sound of scissors slicing paper, the smell of glue, the concentration required to cut neatly around a sign or a silhouette. I have learned at least to leave a margin. I have filled my mornings with walks that lasted several hours, and I have spent all my afternoons at the desk by the window, in my movable office that for a time became sedentary.
Come Experience Something Different. When I arrived two months ago, I thought that in this time of solitude and withdrawal I would be able to finish the task. Now I am about to leave and realize it is not done, because the journey back, both in anticipation and once it is accomplished, will be a requisite part of it. I pack my bags, but the task continues. I put away the notebooks in the suitcase, then the binders, the pencil cases, the cardboard boxes, there is little room for anything else, a few books, a few items of clothing perhaps that will mostly serve as cushioning. The bulkiest book is a wonderful biography of Baudelaire that I have read compulsively of late, a book that keeps me up at night, unable to sleep, and that I will finish tonight during the foreseeably sleepless flight to Madrid. I have put away the splendid case of twenty-four colored pencils and also the inkwell, which I never used since I can only write in pencil. Imagination comes to a halt and words run dry when I try to write with a pen.
Your Body Was Made to Move. Everything turned into a clock, an urgent stopwatch in these last few days. Everything turned into an hourglass, telling time by a visible diminution of its size or of its contents, a shampoo-clock in the shower, a bodywash clock, marking the end of this period of seclusion and of my life in the city. The jar of honey from which I took a spoonful each morning for my coffee with milk is more than half empty. The medicine bottle rings more hollow each time I take it from the cabinet. There are no more calendar pages with numbered boxes to cross off the days. But it makes no difference, since everything is a clock. The pencil I wrote with during these past few weeks is so short that I can barely hold it between my fingers. The first thing I have done each morning on waking up, sometimes also in the middle of the night, has been to look at the red numbers on the nightstand clock. In the kitchen there are other clocks, one on the oven and one on the microwave, and in the living room there is one on the DVD player and one on the cable box. On my phone there is a clock and a stopwatch, and on my wrist there is a watch with numbers and small moving hands. There is another stopwatch in my pulse and in my eyeballs when I rub them with fatigue, and another one beating like a solemn pendulum inside my ribcage. The light, lingering a little longer each day in the window and on the building opposite, has been a sundial. The shadow, rising gradually from the sidewalk to the upper floors and finally extinguishing the last remaining glow on the cornice facing west, has been a shadow-dial. There is a water clock of words spilling onto the paper from my hand and from the tip of the pencil as I write. When I walked alone for many hours through the city, my legs were the ticking hands of a clock measuring time in a two-step rhythm. In the afternoon, and in the middle of the night, the metal sounds coming from the heating pipes and radiators were another clock embedded in the fabric of things. My breathing was a clock, the air that fills my lungs and is released shortly after with a faint whistle before rushing back in. Writing was another way to measure time. The particles of graphite coming off the pencil were like grains of sand.
What’s Your Ritual. In the past I have left New York with a sense of rupture, as if something that never managed to become complete were being interrupted once again. Today I am surprised by a neutral mood that is only altered by a slight dizziness. The fatigue of going back and forth so many times suddenly weighs on me. Perhaps there is a temporal instinct inside me, a clock that measures long durations, telling me I will not come back. I feel no sadness at this premonition, or almost none; I feel relief. As far back as I can recall, no period of my life, or lives, has been without a fracture: between places, loyalties, desires. I did not plan it this way, but I realize now without sorrow that it is all coming to an end.
My Office Always Travels with Me. I worked so intensely in the past two months that I now feel the need to rest, to return. I purged and cleansed myself internally by spending so much time alone, devoted to a single task. This place has been my office and my workshop, my cell and monastery. I do not know how many miles I walked or how many pages I wrote by hand, in pencil, in these past few months. The laptop can tell the exact number of words that accrued as I made a fair copy of the writing, turning it into something less haphazard. Each blank page appeared before me like a smooth slab of concrete on a city sidewalk, like a storefront, a window display. I clipped and gathered and recorded so many fragments of conversation, so many newspaper headlines and advertising phrases that I now have a great need for silence. The combination of extreme solitude and an overabundance of voices—heard, read, imagined, invented—gives rise to an incipient sense of delirium. You have to close and to shut down everything before leaving and then do nothing. Close the last notebook, the laptop, the suitcase. Close and lock the door to the apartment, that abolished cloister, just as the taxi driver will finally close the trunk to the car.
Drive Toward the Unexpected. It is a Sunday afternoon, so there is little traffic on the way to the airport. The loud bustle of street commerce goes on in Harlem. From the window of the taxi you can see the city fall away, recede, catch glimpses of it across the East River through metal beams and suspension cables. There is a soft, objective clarity to the April afternoon. The edges and the outlines of things are unblurred by distance. Even the worry of having neglected or forgotten some crucial thing at the last moment is not very pronounced. Fatigue acts as a sedative. There is a great relief in being done, in being able to consign a part of life to the archive of concluded things; as if one had finished a task, or were about to. Beneath it all, like a perpetual undercurrent, is the notion that the future is no longer boundless. There is no more time for life experiments, as there still was in the past few years. Ten or fifteen years ago my life was still bordering on youth. Ten or fifteen years into the future lead to that strange and inconceivable thing, old age. There will be no new city to indulge in the illusion of starting a new life.
Curiosity Will Be Your Companion. Baudelaire travels to Brussels for a few days in 1864 and is trapped in a puzzling paralysis, a strange, self-imposed exile that will be the last episode of his conscious life. In the twenty years prior, though always in Paris, he changed his address constantly, moving from place to place without forethought or rest, writing poems and essays on art for newspapers, fleeing from creditors who never ceased to pursue him, sending his mother awful letters filled with desperate pleas and with blackmail. In total he lived in thirty different places in Paris, once moving six times in a single month. One night, at eleven o’ clock, he gets to Brussels by train and goes directly from the station to a nearby hotel called Du Grand Miroir. He will stay there indefinitely, even though he finds it a loathsome place. But then Brussels, too, strikes him as a ghastly city, and Belgium as a revolting country, yet he will do nothing to distance himself from an atmosphere he finds stifling and a place where he can find no way to make a living. The owner of the hotel torments him with her demands and her acrimony when he is late with the bill. He makes constant plans to go back to Paris and always cancels them at the last minute. In long, convulsive letters to his mother, he promises to visit, but then defers the trip for a day, a day or two, a week, and in the end he always finds an excuse: sickness, penury, work. He does not even enjoy walking through Brussels. The weather is almost always foul, and Brussels is a town of muddy streets and hostile strangers where it is impossible to take a pleasant walk.
Discovering New Things Is What Keeps You Alive. Sick, forced to be sedentary, confined to his dark room in the hotel “of the Great Mirror,” Baudelaire writes terrible things against Belgium, the Belgians, Belgian women, who seem vulgar and fat to him, against the ugly fashions of Brussels and the king and his subjects’ bovine deference. His health worsens every day. He is afraid to go out because he suffers from vertigo and fainting spells. He is afraid to lose his mind. One day he writes with clear-headed terror that he felt the flutter of the wing of imbecility brush him ever so slightly. He plans books that he will never write. Perhaps they seem more real to him when he describes them in detail in his letters to his mother. He wants to write a book of Confessions, like Rousseau, and a long ferocious pamphlet against Belgium. He wants to finish the volume of his poems in prose, which changes fluidly in form and even in title as it moves through various incarnations, and which exists already, perhaps, in a conjectural and approximate way, scattered across the pages of the various newspapers and defunct journals that published the poems. Sometimes this future work is called The Spleen of Paris, sometimes not. Baudelaire will never hold it in his hands. On the large, densely printed pages of mass newspapers devoted to business, politics and advertising it will be hard for anyone to notice these brief, barbed pieces of poetry, with their delirious visions of the city and of its monstrous or eccentric denizens, Paris, that underwater realm of strolling opium eaters.
A Whole World of Pleasures. As a young man he was frugal, drinking almost nothing except the light wines of Burgundy. Now he drinks cognac and laudanum. Opium dissolved in alcohol relieves some of his pains while causing and magnifying others. Now, in Brussels, in his darkened hotel room, Baudelaire is a true disciple of Thomas De Quincey, a full companion in the brotherhood of addicts. In the course of two years he travels to Paris only once, shortening his stay so that a few days later he is already back in the needless horror of his Brussels life. On March 31 he suffers a stroke that paralyzes half his body. Friends carry him back to the hotel. A few days later he develops aphasia. When Baudelaire finally boards a train for Paris, leaving Brussels and the Hôtel du Grand Miroir, he is a ghost of himself. His smooth and closely shaven face has never been so pale. With his white hair, his unwrinkled features and his withered body, Baudelaire is a zombie staring fixedly ahead in complete silence. The longer the silence lasts, the more piercing his gaze becomes. Sometimes, barely opening his lips, he utters a repeated sound, a kind of croak that his friends finally decipher: “Crecoeur, Crecoeur.” He is not even able to pronounce the words “Sacré-Coeur.”
I Want to Cry Calling Out My Name. He had once written: “Sometimes I am overcome by a desire to sleep for an infinite time.” Baudelaire spends the last year of his life in a room in a sanatorium, by a window overlooking a garden. On the wall there is a painting by his friend Manet and a reproduction of one of Goya’s portraits of the Duchess of Alba. Only his eyes and the set of his mouth remain unchanged: his lips are pressed together in the same attitude of concealed stubbornness, arrogance and disdain; his eyes are filled with an impenetrable solitude. Those eyes, that mouth, the outsize forehead and the weak chin, that face that seems so strangely naked can be seen in all of Nadar’s photographs and especially in the portrait by Fantin-Latour. Years earlier, he had translated a short story by Poe in which a man, hypnotized during his final agony, continues to heed commands and to reply in a hideous muttering voice from the other side of death. What took place in Baudelaire’s mind and in his imagination during that last year of his life cannot be known—what dreams he had, what lasting visions in the grip of opium, what poems and what imprecations must have briefly taken shape and vanished instantly. When his friends came to visit, he would stare at them fixedly, as much of a stranger among them as in Fantin-Latour’s group portrait. Ocassionally he would grip someone’s hand and stare at him without blinking. He would open his mouth and seem about to speak, but in the end the words never formed inside his throat or on his lips. Sometimes he managed to say a few simple things, “Oui, Monsieur,” “Bonjour, Monsieur,” mimicking an acquiescence that had never been in his character. Sometimes the photographer Nadar came by and took him to a dinner with friends. Baudelaire remained motionless, docile, impassive, sitting at a corner of the table amidst loud laughter, conversation, bottles of wine and clouds of tobacco smoke. He was his own wax statue: pale, smooth-skinned, close-shaven, with an old man’s scrawny neck rising from an open collar that was now too wide, his eyes as fixed as if they were made of glass.
I Don’t Know What It Is or How You Say It. One day Nadar came looking for him at the sanatorium, and he silently refused to leave. He never moved his head, he just pressed his lips together and looked away. Soon after, he stopped getting out of bed. He lay under the sheets that came up to his waxen face. His mouth stayed firmly shut. No words came out of it anymore, and almost no sounds. His eyes stayed fixed on the ceiling. When people visited, he turned his face toward them, seemed to heed whatever trivial words of comfort were said, and turned his face back to the wall. He began to develop sores and ulcers on his back from lying in bed so much. He squirmed in pain and discomfort but never let out a single moan or complaint. When he died, no one realized it in time to close his eyes. They were open even when Baudelaire was in his coffin.
You Can’t Imagine What Awaits You. As I walk through the metal detector, the alarm goes off. But I placed my watch, wallet, cellphone and keys in the tray. I go through again and the same thing happens. A security guard tells me to stand with my feet apart and raise my arms. When the wand touches my hips, it makes a sound. Then I realize I was carrying a pencil sharpener in my pocket. The guard holds it between a gloved finger and thumb, inspecting it while keeping an eye on me as well. With scornful magnanimity, she says I can gather the metal objects from the tray. She studies the tiny pencil sharpener as if it might contain an explosive device. Just as she drops it in a plastic bag, a different alarm goes off somewhere else. A guard stationed at the x-ray scanner lifts a backpack and asks to whom it belongs. The belt has stopped. Another guard is setting a suitcase upright. The backpack and the suitcase are mine. When I raise my hand to let them know, the guard who took away the pencil sharpener looks at me no longer disapprovingly but with open contempt. In my socks, holding my belt in one hand and hitching up my pants with the other, trying not to lose sight of my shoes, my cellphone or my jacket in their respective plastic trays, I must face the guard who set my backpack aside and the one who lifts my suitcase from the conveyor belt and is surprised to find it weigh so much despite being so small.
Become a BMW Legend. Luggage is beginning to back up as is the line of tired and impatient travelers. Some look at me accusingly, realizing I am the reason for the holdup. Yet another guard, stockier and even more serious than the rest, tells me to move aside and go to a separate table. He asks in a procedural tone if the suitcase and backpack belong to me and if anyone, whether an acquaintance or a stranger, helped me pack or was in possession of them at any time. I say no, trying to slip my feet into my shoes without bending down and also to put on my belt while keeping eye contact with the guard. He asks if I am carrying any liquids or metal objects, and I say no and then immediately regret it. He unzips a pocket on the backpack and extracts a pair of scissors and the tiny metal barrel of a pencil sharpener, the kind that stores the shavings in a little compartment. The guard opens the lid inquisitively, and the shavings fall and flutter to the ground around him. He looks at me as if demanding an explanation. I stay silent, continuing to slide the belt blindly around my waist, which is quite hard.
Find Everything You Need. The guard closes the pencil sharpener and sets it carefully aside. Then he attends to the scissors. They are short, blunt scissors with plastic handles, almost like the ones children would use in daycare. The guard slides a gloved finger along the edge of the blade and gives me a look that feels somewhat accusing. “Sharp metal objects are forbidden,” he says. I am a little relieved because I have managed to buckle my belt and put on my shoes, though the laces are still untied. I try to pluck up my courage and say I was allowed to carry the scissors through other security checkpoints before, but I stay silent. Now he sets the backpack aside, though he does not return it, and tells me to open the suitcase. He asks again if I am carrying liquids or metal objects, and I say no, but he no longer believes anything I say. He feels under the folded clothes and slips his hand into a pocket, taking out the inkwell and giving it a shake before my eyes. He unscrews the lid, sniffs the opening and screws it back on. Holding the inkwell in a gloved hand, he looks at me sternly and asks me what it is. “An inkwell,” I say. I make an effort to speak clearly, to pronounce the English word correctly. Inkwell.
Be the First to Own It. He sets the inkwell aside, next to the scissors and the pencil sharpener, as carefully as if he were handling incriminating evidence. He proceeds slowly on purpose, to make me nervous, to let me know who is in charge, who can make me lose my flight if he so wishes. Luckily I came to the airport quite early. One by one he empties all the notebooks from the suitcase. He opens them as if looking for something hidden between the pages. Clippings and tickets and loose notes fall out, which are of interest, though for the moment he chooses to disregard them all except for one: a heavily underlined newspaper page with the story of the Islamist attack in Nice. He looks at the various papers, and he looks at me. He opens a flat cardboard box that used to hold a cellphone charger, and out come dozens of flyers for erotic services and African fortune tellers that I collected in Madrid. He looks at the flyers, and he looks at me. He puts them back in the box. Now he asks for my passport, my boarding pass and a document showing proof of residence or stating the motive of my stay in the United States. I show him my green card, which has no effect. I show him an ID card from the university where I worked for a time. As a document it is partly false, since I no longer work there, but it expires in two years so it is not entirely improper to produce it. A minor and harmless deception. “Any other metal objects in your suitcase?”
Relax Your Senses. I was going to say no, but I no longer dare. One has seen so many movies that it seems better to remain silent and not say anything self-incriminating. From the bottom of the suitcase, beneath the huge biography of Baudelaire, the guard accusingly removes my splendid case of twenty-four colored pencils, thin, metallic, more elegant even than the MacBook Air. Holding the case, standing over the open suitcase and backpack, surrounded by clippings, pencil shavings, erasers, notebooks and pencils, the guard looks me up and down and asks what I do for a living. I have to make a large mental adjustment: he is not older than I; he is not an adult invested with authority and facing a defenseless young man. He is the young one: I am a gray-haired man of sixty-one. “What do you do for a living?” he says, beginning to put everything away carefully and in reverse order, except the scissors and the inkwell.
Connect with What You Really Like. My office is now the minimal space of the tray table next to the window, beneath the solitary overhead light in the darkened cabin. I ate almost none of my dinner, and I am not sleepy. I took a sleeping pill, but the space is so tight and the seat so uncomfortable that it will be impossible to rest. My office is the tray table, the pencil, the open notebook. Later it is the laptop where I read Spanish newspapers with all the expectancy of impending return. I made the mistake of purchasing Wi-Fi. There was a time when you would set off on a transatlantic journey and know that you were isolated from the outside world for many hours, in a state of perfect indolence that was forced on you and so could not be faulted. Now there is no solitude, no silence, no respite. Online banners, photographs and videos pop up around the articles or open suddenly inside them without prior notice. I should have sat still with my eyes closed, or continued reading the biography of Baudelaire. Nervous stimulation tires you out and simultaneously makes it impossible to rest. Spanish voices, heard again after two months, seem as intrusive in the restless dark, amid the faint breathing and stirring of bodies, as the loud headlines and the online ads. Now, suddenly, so close to the end, on the eve of return, I feel afraid that they will never fade again, those voices that were so intoxicating in the past few months, once I began to notice them a little under a year ago, like a scientist inoculating himself with an excessive dose of the pathogen whose antidote he was hoping to find. The voices surround me as if they belonged to the sleeping bodies in the cabin.
Connect Wherever You Like. The man shot dead at the Paris Orly Airport yelled, “I am here to die for Allah.” The theft of a Secret Service laptop worries American authorities. Marine Le Pen is the favored candidate for young French people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. A woman accuses her ex-boyfriend of pouring glue on her vagina. Two elderly people die when their house burns down in Alicante. Angelina Jolie buys a twenty-five-million-dollar mansion to start a new life. The mystery of the sixty-one infant skeletons found on a beach remains unsolved. Police kill a man who tried to take a soldier’s gun at Orly airport. Celebrities reap the gains of their social media following. Astrologer Susan Miller is an internet sensation. The actor who played the Red Power Ranger declares himself guilty of murder. A wave of robberies in Los Angeles claims Kendall Jenner’s jewelry. Jude Law says the war in Syria must end. Emily Ratajkowski walks through the streets of New York in her underwear. A brothel featuring realistic sex dolls opens in Barcelona. An Algerian novelist is charged with blasphemy. Fake-meat scandal reaches Brazilian supermarkets. Torrential rains affect sixty thousand people in Peru. Fifteen bodies found in a ditch inside a jail outside Caracas. Arrested after hitting her wife on the head with a hammer in front of their baby. Victoria Beckham registers her daughter’s name Harper as a trademark. The man taken into custody in Antwerp after trying to run down a crowd had a rifle in his car. Police detain a man dressed as Hitler in the German dictator’s native town. Scarlett Johansson opens a gourmet popcorn store in Paris. Officers who shot and killed an unarmed black man in Louisiana are freed without charges. A group of apes kill their former leader returned from exile and cannibalize his body. A segment of the Appian Way is found beneath a McDonald’s.
To Make Us Enjoy the Good Times. And what can you do in the midst of it all? What use are your childish avocations, your love of the task, placing one word after another, drawing or composing a phrase as carefully as possible and then, after the period, starting another, until a page is filled, and then a notebook, and then another? But not just that; also everything you never used to notice, thinking it was insignificant or unworthy of your work: to open the bedroom window in the morning and let in the cold, clean air as you make the bed; to value what you would never have discovered on your own, the beauty of immediate and ordinary things; to make a nice meal for your loved ones, cleaning the kitchen and setting everything in order as you go, just as you clean your desk or as you clean a sentence of errors and distractions or superfluous adjectives. What can you do? What depends on you? To what degree does it matter or mean anything, what you do, what you have done for so many years? Many of the finest works ever written, painted or composed received no attention and resulted in no spiritual or moral benefit or reward for their authors. Many more than you think must have disappeared without a trace.
Reality Surpasses the Imagination. What to do, then? What impulse guides you? What justifies you in this task to which you devote your life?. Often for days on end, without pause, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed, and also before, and also after. Terrible things are happening in the world at every instant. For a writer or an artist to be ignored is a laughable misfortune. People are tortured and hanged in underground Syrian jails. Central American immigrants are robbed and murdered on that terrible train they call The Beast. People drown in the Mediterranean trying to cross from Africa to the shores of southern Europe. Walls and barbed-wire fences rise along borders, lit at night by searchlights, equipped with automatic sensors, patrolled by soldiers and police with attack dogs and automatic weapons. A cement wall can split between two worlds an olive grove in Palestine as small and carefully tended as the one my father had on the road to Granada. Helicopters and armored ATVs give chase to emigrants who manage to cross the border into the deserts of Texas and California. A girl’s face is burnt with acid in Afghanistan because she wants to go to school. A gang of five drunken men rapes a girl at a barbaric Spanish feast day, recording it on their cellphones and urging each other on as they take turns and then gloat about their exploit on the internet. Another terrifying gang of men tortures a hippopotamus for an entire night in a filthy tank at the San Salvador zoo, using axes and hammers and even a chainsaw. A sperm whale washes ashore on a beach that looks like it was taken out of a travel brochure; it has starved to death and they find sixty pounds of plastic bags inside its stomach. In the middle of the Pacific, on Midway island, the most remote from any landmass, the albatross feed their young with plastic cigarette lighters that they find floating in the ocean and mistake for squid, which are their usual sustenance. A demagogue with a head of dyed-blond hair runs as a candidate in the Dutch elections and is enthusiastically supported by ignorant and resentful crowds. Political demagogues crop up and multiply across the world like an epidemic of terrifying clowns. So far they can be identified by the utter shamelessness with which they incite hatred and by their big yellow hair.
Never Did Fish and Plankton in the Mediterranean Feed on So Many Human Beings. And what do you do in the meantime? How do you not give up and hide? Where do you find not just the strength but the rationale to devote yourself to this, to be always doing what you are doing even now in an airplane seat at two in the morning under a reading light, so uncomfortably that it borders on contortionism, surrounded by sleeping bodies in the dark, leaning over an open notebook on a folding tray that shakes with the smallest turbulence? The pencil I was using got so small that it was hard to hold. In the backpack I found another pencil I bought in Lisbon, with a thick lead. The kind of pencil a carpenter might use. It forces me to write in a larger hand, more loosely, with a more expansive gesture. It makes a thick line, and it wears rapidly so I have to keep the pencil sharpener handy. Luckily I always carry a few. It is a tradesman’s or an artist’s pencil, tending to make diffuse marks rather than lines; a pencil that pulls me along, carrying me at full speed over the notebook’s pages, covering them with writing in an instant, so I have to turn them quickly. The sound it makes on the paper is richer and more nuanced, a sound of crumbling matter. If I knew how to draw, I could use this pencil to create shade and volume. What am I doing with this pencil at two in the morning, as far from arriving anywhere as I am from having left, thirty thousand feet over the Atlantic, overexcited by lack of sleep and listening to the scratching sound of a pencil on a piece of paper beneath the giant roar of the airplane engines?
Join the Mechanical Revolution. How am I able to overcome the insecurity that comes back so often without warning to paralyze and batter me; the fear that the result of my efforts may be well below my aspirations; the general dismay at seeing how little room is left for literature? I live in this world, and not another. In this time. The fact that I am foreign to it, or that I feel that way, grants me no immunity. An immigration officer can lock me up in an airport cell if I seem suspicious. An inspired fanatic can set off an explosive vest next to me while I have a cup of coffee at a sidewalk table in Madrid or in Paris. As I sit writing with my pencil, deaf even to the roar of the plane, Donald Trump will be plotting new ways to despoil the rivers, the earth and the air at some secret meeting with his rich accomplices. Any creep can defame you with a phrase on Twitter. Nearly everything you love is at risk of disappearing. You cannot even enjoy the escape of nostalgia, since you know there never was a better time. You feel nostalgia not for what took place but for what might have happened; not for what was, but for what without too much difficulty might have been. While those people destroy the world and increase their wealth immensely through the destitution of the vast majority of human beings, your desire is to build something, to see something through. It will not require you to squander resources or exploit anyone else. Chances are it will also be entirely useless. The most you can aspire to is to provide some stranger with a little company.
A Journey to the Heart. On the subway, sitting across from me a few days ago, a young woman was reading a Samuel Beckett novel with evident excitement. An old woman, my mother, slowly and laboriously reads the novel that Elena Fortún was never able to publish, recognizing in its pages the bitter capitulations as well as the secret pride of her own life. In a squalid cell in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King strengthens his will to resist by reading Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience. Those same pages had been read, sixty years earlier and in a different cell in South Africa, by a young lawyer who was not yet known as Mahatma Gandhi. An unknown work can survive like a buried seed to multiply and spread through secret channels, finally after a long time bursting into the light. In his last days fleeing through France, Walter Benjamin took solace and distracted himself by reading Le rouge et le noir. At age seven, Stendhal finds a copy of Don Quixote in the gloomy house where his father took him his mother died. Reading the adventure of the windmills, he finds himself for the first time laughing out loud. You do what you want, or what you can, or what you cannot help yourself from doing, and you give it your all. But you cannot know what the result will be, and there are no guarantees of any kind. Trendy, mediocre works are usually acclaimed. Truly good ones are overlooked for so long that when their qualities are finally recognized, the author may be long dead, in which case some rich collector will make even more money by buying and selling what was made in obscure poverty. One of Poe’s many desperate letters begging for a small loan or pestering editors for his pay can be sold at auction for a half a million dollars. A copy of the first edition of Ulysses is worth four hundred fifty thousand dollars because it was kept in a safe for eighty years, suffered no deterioration and lost none of the rich blue tint of the original cover. A Basquiat painting of crowned black heroes and boxers hangs on a Russian gangster’s bathroom wall.
All Paths Leading to Madness. Nor should you think that failure and obscurity are proofs of talent simply because they go together rather frequently. You may be neglected yet worse than someone who enjoys great success, or some success. Your love for literature need not be requited. Your zeal and your devotion to the task do not mean the result will be memorable. Perhaps you won a prize because they did not want to give it to someone else. And if you did not win a prize you thought you deserved, it does not mean you are better than the one who did. You know nothing. You never will. The one who praises you may be lying or lacking judgment. The one who makes a painful and negative remark may be right. You do what you can, not what you want, and you do it because you cannot help it. Nobody asked you to. Nobody owes you anything. Some will find it laughable, even reprehensible, that at a time of so many urgent social causes and terrible injustice, you devote all this effort to something that is primarily justified aesthetically, beginning and ending with itself: a good painting, when there were generally accepted criteria to judge paintings; a sonnet that meets at least the objective demands of meter and rhyme. As a teenager, I was very impressed by some verses of Gabriel Celaya: “I could write a perfect poem / but it would be indecent in our times.” Why indecent? How can it be indecent to do something well? And what are the grounds for such arrogance? Is perfection such a simple thing? Are you so sure of attaining it if you just decide?
Why Go Somewhere Else When Everything Is Here? But it is just the lack of sleep and the flight back and the pleasant Portuguese pencil, the sound it makes, and the notebook’s wide pages and the single malt whiskey I ordered after dinner to compensate for it and to forget I ever had it, and the vast oceanic darkness in the window and the single light above me, the light of airplane cabins and religious allegories. I am absurdly reminded of Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew. My right hand and arm ache from so much writing. I have a callus on the first joint of my middle finger like the one I had as a schoolboy. The noise of the engines and the shaking of the tray table have been communicated to my skull. Walter Benjamin, shortly before France fell, wrote in a letter to his friend Scholem that every well-made essay or article one was able to write and publish in those circumstances was a barrier against the forces of darkness. Sick, and nearly mad, Baudelaire took a final melancholy pride in having devoted his whole life to a single task, the writing of well-made sentences. You, for your part, will not be hounded by hunger, syphilis, the Gestapo or the NKVD. There is no risk—at least for now—that a tyrant’s henchmen will come at midnight to confiscate what you have written, to lock you up in a cell and sentence you to twenty years in a camp on the Arctic Circle or just shoot you in the back of the head, not without first making it clear that they will also ruin, because of you, the lives of everyone you love. This is an extraordinary advantage. A group of religious fanatics in Nicaragua burns a woman alive because they think she is possessed by the devil, but nothing like that can happen to you. No one has a sense of proportion when judging personal misfortunes. In one of his songs, Leonard Cohen sarcastically compares the calamity of the European Jews to the bad reviews his albums occasionally receive. The self-centered friend to whom you just bared your soul, telling him that you were diagnosed with cancer or that the love of your life just left you, may go on to complain about how bad it was when he suddenly lost reception on his iPhone. But you will not be arrested or stoned to death because of what you write—in part, of course, because what you write, what anyone like you is capable of writing, is not worthy of the slightest concern. One of the great misfortunes for dissident writers in the Soviet Union was that Stalin had such respect for literature.
Wear Your Best Smile. But here is Marine Le Pen contending for the French presidential election, and Donald Trump with his gold, Lex Luthor hairpiece, disgoverning the world like a megalomaniacal villain out of a cheap novel, a Goldfinger or a Doctor No.
Time to Dazzle. I have closed the notebook. My wrist hurts from writing. I have turned off the reading light. I have shut my eyes, but I cannot fall asleep. The words and voices I gathered for so long, copying, clipping them with scissors, gluing them into seamless mosaics and storing them in cardboard boxes, keep up a steady murmur I can no longer stop. Live authentically. Live a free exclusive experience. Take control. Call us, we can help. I want to focus only on the moment of arrival, on the incredible fact that in a few hours I will be in Madrid, in my other life, my real one, my house. The comfort you deserve. The house of your dreams. Where you want to be. Like my friend the scientist who collects bits of ocean trash, I fear I have fallen into an intoxicating compulsion, an obsession from which I can no longer break free. There is a toxic quality to all those voices that seem to whisper only in my ear, to be directed just at me. Hearing voices that no one else can hear is a clear sign of a mental disorder. There may be a form of madness that makes it impossible to forget them, to stop listening to them, to sweep them from your mind and memory. Choose the bundle that suits you. Bring us your old cellphone. The messages disperse and seem to vanish, but their substance, the toxic compounds they contain, persist even more insidiously because they are invisible to the naked eye, like plastic microparticles lodged in the tissues of marine animals, or like amphetamines, antibiotics and antidepressants excreted in human urine to travel through pipes and water treatment plants into the sea. Verbal trash builds up in the brain like heavy metals on the muddy ocean floor. It is not an intellectual but a physical condition. A kind of nausea or malaise, similar to the boundless fatigue that came over me during the last days in New York, something as immediate as the first signs of food poisoning. Deep sleep can flush it out. But it has been a long time since I slept with any real sense of rest, plunging into genuine oblivion. I am not sure how many hours I have been awake. I am no longer on New York time, nor six hours later in Madrid. When my eyes close, I am in complete temporal darkness. Take charge. Experience control. Sleep and genuine company will heal me. The truth is that I no longer know how to sleep unless I am with her. Living alone for a long time in the thick closeness of the self is like working in a cellar or a pit. The only antidote to ghosts is a genuine human presence. Only the voice of someone dear, the real voice of friendship and affection, can dispel or push away those other voices that no one else can hear but you.
Now You Can Be Three Inches Taller Without Anyone Knowing. This is the shortened, interrupted night of return. I open my eyes and look at the phone in total darkness. It says it is two o’clock. It seems that the trip and the night will last a while longer. Suddenly the lights come on, breakfast is hastily served to a bunch of crammed, befuddled passengers, like animals in an industrial cattle farm. The window shades go up, a flood of unexpected sunlight fills the cabin as the airplane tips sideways for landing.
Feel Life Through Your Ears. I walk very quickly through the vast empty spaces of the terminal, faster still down a moving ramp. Beyond the panoramic windows there is a landscape of arid hills bathed in a kind of desert light. I overtake the other passengers, who are dazed with sleep or lost in an airport that is so unpleasant the first time. I walk with instinctive assurance, knowing I am in my country, my world, in Europe. I am not afraid of the policemen or the Immigration officers. I will not see anywhere the ostentation of American flags or the official portrait of the yellow-haired megalomaniac. I barely have to stop at passport control. The sign that says “European Union Citizens” always fills me with joy. I am able to go even faster because I did not check a bag and am not forced to endure, as many times before, a grim wait at early dawn by a baggage belt that will not start. Lack of sleep, and being back, fill me with a light and floating sense of unmoored clarity, as in a dream. Polished floors and gliding ramps assist my progress. Elevators and moving stairways spare me any effort, like obliging porters in the time of the Orient Express. Automatic doors swiftly fly apart when I approach. As soon as you step outside an airport terminal you notice a country’s smell: the arrivals hall at JFK smells of fast food, fried grease, hot pizza dough. The first waft of early-morning air in Madrid carries a Spanish smell of tobacco and coffee with milk.
Learn to Read Your Body. I barely have to wait at the taxi stand either. As soon as the driver opens the trunk, I place my bag inside, heavy with all the notebooks. Everything is on a smaller scale. People are not very tall, or muscular, or obese. Cars are smaller and drive faster over an immaculate highway. Everything is quick and simple. The city lies in a lazy, Sunday-morning kind of calm. “Everyone leaves town for Easter,” says the taxi driver in a strong Spanish accent that I always find a little startling when I am back from a trip.
Try on a New Identity. I used to arrive at this same time of day during those first years when I was not yet living permanently in Madrid. I would spend the whole night on the train and see the sun rise as the taxi drove through the city. If I came by plane, on the first morning flight, I got as little sleep the night before as if I had taken the train, from eagerness and impatience, or worrying that the alarm would not go off or that I would not hear it. The moment of arrival and delight was also the moment the countdown began. But during those first hours, that first day, time was an untouched treasure, a bright, safe house, the very one she had arranged in every detail and with all her care, with all her instinct for beauty and light. Though I was only there for part of the year, it was our shared house. We furnished it together, and we split the rent in affirmation of our life together, despite the distance or the time we had to spend apart. I would set the suitcase on the floor and open the front door with my key, and as I stepped inside, I would be met by morning sunlight and by a faint perfume of cleanliness that was already like breathing in the nearness of her body. Places change over the years, a photo gallery. But the feeling of arrival and of warmth remains the same: the purity of the space, the sense that the air itself is tinged by her presence. Sometimes I arrived after a tiring journey or a bad hotel night, discouraged by some problem at work, some setback, oppressed by some commitment, or by fear, or regret. Sometimes I was tired, sleepless, hungry, filled with desire, in need of shelter and reprieve and absolution. The particulars fade, though they are meaningful and do not deserve to be lost. Early on I would write down each time we met or had sex. One should know how she wore her hair on a certain morning, what perfume she had on, what we said to each other when we met, if there was time in fact to say anything; what the house was like, what the view was from the balcony or from the window. Everything is simplified to a few decisive strokes, like a tale whose essence is preserved through very different retellings: the trip, the early morning in Madrid, the house when I arrived, and how I gazed and breathed its calm, and then the passionate encounter, the darkened room and the day outside, the gifts I brought—a pair of earrings, a cigarette lighter, a tin boat in bright colors, a terracotta horse from China, the silk robe, the one with the red flowers.
Reactivate the Youth of Your Skin. Now the taxi comes to a stop. Two months ago I took a different taxi at the same time of day and in the opposite direction. Everything is the same, and everything has changed. It was a colder morning, but the light was as clear as now. The first time Louis Armstrong went back to his house in Queens after a tour, he was so moved that he could not get out of the cab. He and his wife had bought the house not long before. For the first time in his life, in his fifties, he was about to go into a house that belonged to him. He looked out the window at the fence, the small yard, the brick façade, and could not bring himself to step out of the car. When the taxi driver grabs my suitcase from the trunk, he is surprised to find it weigh so much despite being a carry-on. There is a sequence of continuous motions, as at the airport before, a fluid, everyday choreography. The doorman helps me carry the suitcase and backpack up the front steps, and then he holds open the elevator door and closes it behind me. My heart is beating very fast.
You Are Still In Time. It took me a few seconds to find the key. I could not remember where I had put it in the backpack two months earlier. I opened the door and was met by the clear light of early morning. The sun has just come up over the rooftops across the street. The house still smells like new. The light coming in through the windows makes the varnished floor gleam. Draw the house you want to live in. Draw a blueprint of your desire. Each object, each book on the shelves by the entrance has been carefully chosen by her. Even the curved Japanese plate for the keys. I take it all in, rapidly and slowly, as if time were standing still. To see the apartment and breathe its air is already like seeing her, like entering into her life, witnessing beforehand her simple gestures and her way of moving and speaking; it is like sensing with complete immediacy the peculiar quality of her soul and the cast of her intelligence; like seeing her and at the same time seeing everything through her eyes. Lorca writes in a letter: “Draw a blueprint of your desire, and live there always under a rule of beauty.”
Tell Us What You Are Looking For, and We Will Find It. I looked up, and I saw in her eyes the same surprise as mine at this unannounced encounter. But if I looked up just then, and in that particular direction, it was because I was sharply and unconsciously warned by my sense of hearing and perhaps of smell. “I didn’t know you’d be here so soon.” She stands there in the silk robe with red flowers, sleepy and surprised, her hair a little tousled. The robe has stayed intact through all these years, from the very beginning, the first encounter, so many cities, countries, different houses and hotels, departures and returns. The colors have not faded, the fabric has not frayed or lost its sheen. It has only grown more supple, more inviting, closer to her skin which has burnished it with its ceaseless touch; warm silk and flushed skin sliding on each other over the years without wilting or fading; silk falling to her feet like a spreading circle of petals when she undoes the belt, and the robe, ebbing from her shoulders, slides with ease along her body and spills on the floor as she rises, as she puts her hands around my neck and brings her mouth to mine.
An Ideal Place to Hide. I am all ears, in the silent bedroom, where the warmth of bodies is preserved after the night is over, in the early Sunday calm. I want to hear her newfound voice in my ear and my own voice whispering into hers. I am all ears, all eyes to look at her, all hands and fingertips, a body clasped to her own. There is a strange sterility to a body that does not touch another. Trace the outline of her face with your fingers, trace her chin, her nose and mouth, the shape of her smile as it begins to form on her lips. I am suddenly aware, just as they disappear, of all the anxiety and fatigue of work and travel, all the loneliness of those long walks, just as an unpleasant and incessant noise only becomes perceptible when it stops, and it is then, when silence spreads as if by miracle, that we notice it gone. This is my house, my island. Nothing will happen to me here. We are each other’s shelters. Memory is so poor at remembering, or it does so imprecisely, obscurely, without sensory qualities. I had not remembered her face properly, her voice, even less the things that are not seen or heard, the particular feel of her skin, the smell of her hair, the taste of her mouth. When she whispers my name, I cease to be no one. When I say hers, I am no longer invoking a ghost or a dream.
Since at Any Given Time and Place. It was the first summer of my adult life. For the first time I had a job, a paycheck, a place of my own. It was a rental apartment in a bland, recently built and nearly uninhabited development on the outskirts of Granada. The only bus that went there had to drive through empty fields and leave behind the very last of the city’s working-class neighborhoods, the Polígono de Cartuja. Part of the area had paved roads and street lights that turned on at night, but no buildings. There was a single, dreary store. It sold everything and it languished in the general desolation. The few pieces of furniture in my apartment were as blank and featureless as the many identical buildings you could see through the windows. The development had been christened with one of those auspicious names so typical of the time: Nueva Granada Park. The word “Granada” was almost as unreal as the word “Park.” There were passageways between buildings that resembled strange streets without any front doors. With my first paycheck I made the down payment on a rather large tape deck that sported the novelty of having detachable speakers. Mostly I listened to tapes that my friends made for me. One of them, a great music lover, had introduced me to Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria. I would listen by turns to Monteverdi, Charles Mingus, Lou Reed (Rock n Roll Animal), Patti Smith (Horses), and a small-time band from Madrid called Leño. I also paid the first installment for the Summa Artis encyclopedia, which I had read avidly as a student at the university library. Each evening, after dinner, I would read a chapter. In those first few months of my new working life I read the whole volume on prehistoric art and the one on ancient Egypt. For some reason I bogged down forever in Mesopotamia.
Where Your Most Secret Fantasies. After fourteen months of military service in the Basque country at the bloodiest height of terrorism, it was not an entirely simple matter to adapt to reality. Also to the fact that I was no longer a student, that I had to wake up early every morning and go to an office building. I was grateful to have a job, and at the same time I tried to adapt my expectations to the constraints of real life. Earning just enough to live was not discouraging, since I had never had much before. What did worry me was that the job was precarious; I had been given a one-year contract that was not renewable. Also that my vocation seemed to be going nowhere.
With a Newfound Ease. I wrote short stories set in the countryside and partly inspired by Juan Rulfo, or stories in which the mundane and the fantastic came together in the manner of Julio Cortázar. By the end of my military service I had an unfinished draft of a novel that I rarely thought about anymore, though there were a couple of binders stuffed with typed pages and rough handwritten drafts. Now and then I submitted stories to provincial writing contests that did not seem hard to win, but where I never even made the short list: the City of St. Sebastian Prize, the City of Motril, etc. I wrote a few lyrics for a friend who sang flamenco and for a novice rock band.
You Wanted to Come Back. That summer I spent the afternoons lying in bed in the rental apartment, listening to tapes and so absorbed in books and so inwardly discouraged by my love of literature that I barely wrote anything. I just read. I read crime novels, and I read Baudelaire and Thomas De Quincey: The Spleen of Paris, Artificial Paradises, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. I had learned about De Quincey, surely, from Borges. I started reading Baudelaire because Francisco Umbral called himself an admirer and a disciple. Umbral’s daily column in El País, which I read faithfully, was titled “The Spleen of Madrid.”
Everything Fits in a Pocketbook. Those three books cast such a spell on me that I even stopped reading crime novels. They were like nothing I had read before. They had great narrative pull, but they were not novels and did not even seem like works of fiction. They were not books of verse, either, but there was a poetic force in them as ravishing as in Lorca’s Poeta en Nueva York. There was a testimonial quality to Baudelaire and De Quincey and, at the same time, a visionary fierceness, as if they were wounded, torn apart, swaying constantly between sharp-edged clarity and delirium. You could take these books with you and read them in spurts, on the bus that took me into town each morning or over breakfast at the café, or in the office, on a slow August morning. As with a book of poems, each reading made them richer and more surprising, disclosing new treasures. And you could read them out of order, as if the chapters were poems falling into new arrangements as random as they were decisive, forming unexpected sequences of inner echoes and connections.
Choose Your Own Adventure. Despite their power, none of the three books awakened in me the spirit of imitation that had been with me since adolescence. I would read a story by Borges and immediately find myself writing something similar, a kind of parody, from the plot to the choice and placement of adjectives. If I read Cortázar, I wrote Cortázar stories, and if I read Rulfo, I wrote Rulfo stories. If I read Chandler, I wanted to create a lonely, sarcastic detective with an office in the Gran Vía de Granada. It is a world that has grown distant, the summer of 1981.
Behind Every Door. It was different with Baudelaire and De Quincey. They both affected me deeply, even though there was no relation between their writing and my own life. But their voices were so unique that they did not let themselves be imitated. It was a music too original and deep for anyone to extract a simple melody that could be copied. A true influence is much more than a particular aesthetic teaching or the emulation of a literary form or style; it is a sudden awakening into the world’s immediate reality, discovering anew and as if from its deepest origins the worth of words and images, the categorical purity of the first names of things. I had been living in Granada for seven years when one day, that summer, steeped in Baudelaire and De Quincey, I saw it for the first time. I saw what stood before my eyes and I saw myself from the outside. In my pocket there was an envelope with a month’s pay. It was cash, not much of it but still comforting in its concreteness. I had spent the morning in the office, my boss was gone and in the August lull almost no one came. I had eaten at a cheap local place where I was already a regular. I crossed the Gran Vía and went down the Zacatín, shady and cool on that relatively mild afternoon. My head was filled with De Quincey’s vexed peregrinations down Oxford Street, and Baudelaire’s through Paris, with their ecstatic glimpses of urban beauty and noise, their raptures, their visions of opium and hunger. When I came to the Plaza Bib-Rambla, it was as if I had landed in a strange seaside town, exotic and unknown, a dazzling souk somewhere on the Silk Road. The same square I had crossed so many times before seemed aflame with beauty. Tall lime trees overrun with birds; flower stands; the sound of water in the fountain; the hulking tower of the cathedral rising over the rooftops; the bronze angel with his sword above the chapel of the Tabernacle; the clamor of voices blending with the noise of water and the sound of birds; young women wearing miniskirts again now that it was summer; the shining pulp of figs that Gypsy women dunked in buckets of cold water before they peeled and sliced them; the big bright billboard for Winston cigarettes, with Rita Hayworth in the black dress she wore as Gilda.
Voyage au Bout de Soi-Même. Baudelaire’s invitation to a voyage was happening to me, in my own city, free of charge and just a few blocks from the office where I worked. I looked and listened to the city until my mind began to dissolve in it as in an opium dream, and I saw myself as well from the outside. I saw the silhouette of a man walking alone in the crowd: a prince in disguise, says Baudelaire; a homeless man; a spy; an opium addict; a photographer; a foreign agent, shadowing strangers; a kindly man moving through Dublin with a potato in the pocket of his coat; a man in love, turning every corner with a shudder of anticipation; a man come back from far away, from other lives and regions of time; a castaway, shipwrecked in the city’s desert island, blinkered with thick glasses, like Pessoa or like Benjamin, carrying on his back a satchel, a large, worn, dark satchel, that he is never without.
[Translated from the Spanish by Guillermo Bleichmar]
1 From Un andar solitario entre la gente by Antonio Muñoz Molina (Seix Barral, S.A.).