Curious George City

I experience a specific, subtle pleasure when I get off the subway taking my son to school in downtown Brooklyn.

Our stop is Jay Street on the F. We exit onto Willoughby.

When I first stood on that corner looking across the street at the big signs for CRICKET (former disposable cell phone store now selling 99-cent-per-slice pizza) and SHOE BUG (shoes), I had no idea where I was. I’d never been to that part of town, and I felt a tingle because the unfamiliarity of this random corner triggered a fantasy.

Downtown Brooklyn always makes me think of the Curious George books. George and the man in the yellow hat live in some unnamed city. It’s not New York. Whenever New York is the setting for a book or movie, the city itself is always an implied extra character. To stick with children’s books, think of Eloise in the Plaza Hotel. In the back of your mind, you’re always aware that she’s living in a famous New York hotel full of New Yorker personalities (grand dames with little dogs, monopoly guys with hats and canes) there on the corner of Central Park. Eloise is about a girl who lives in New York City.

It’s the same with Madeline in Paris.

Curious George lives in a city with sidewalks, taxis, buses, doormen, parks with fountains and a zoo, long blocks of stores with mannequins behind big windows, but the city is unnamed. It’s New York without all of the New York mythology.

When I feel bored with New York, I think about other places to live. I could go to the country. But who am I kidding? That would be even more boring in the long run.

Maybe it would be nice to go to Curious George’s city, another city that just isn’t New York. Somewhere with sidewalks, taxis, buses, doorman with whistles, etc. but none of the relentless mythologizing about bagels and Broadway. Somewhere that I don’t always hear Gershwin or Lou Reed playing in the back of my mind.

This is how I imagine Philadelphia and Chicago. Not San Francisco. San Francisco, with its hills and streetcars, has too much mythology. I’ve seen it in too many movies.

You want to go somewhere that you could step out of your big apartment building in your fedora and overcoat without feeling like you’re in a Woody Allen movie.

When I first stood on the corner of Jay and Willoughby without any sense of reference … looking at CRICKET and SHOE BUG and all the cheap shops going in every direction … my unconscious insisted that I was standing on a corner in this Curious George city. A corner in some unnamed city. If I walked that way, I’d surely find a coffee shop full of people from the 1950s calling each other “mac” and quipping with the waitress making a milkshake behind the counter. Busy city blocks would go on and on, and I’d never encounter some over-photographed tourist attraction. Just buildings, stores, buses and taxis.

Eventually, I’d find a wrought-iron fence with the words “Municipal Zoo” above a gate.

This fantasy is so strong that I can always retrieve my original sense of disorientation. I can still see this imaginary city when I get off the subway and stand on the corner. The hallucination is fixed and apparently unaffected by my ever improving picture of the area. My kids have been in the school for a few years, so I now know this whole chunk of Brooklyn pretty well, from the Manhattan Bridge to Red Hook. But, at will, I can still see my Curious George corner.

I think that this fantasy is connected to an early childhood memory. One of my earliest memories in fact.

The memory itself is just two flashes. First flash, I am in the bright lobby of a movie theater. I am happy because we just saw a movie. Second flash, I am lying down in the back of the station wagon and looking up at the city lights passing. I’m lying down because it’s past my bedtime. I was expected to go to sleep on the way home. Then they’d carry me inside. I’m happy because I like being in the city at night. I am AWARE that I like being downtown.

The city was Jackson. We lived in a suburb. At my age then, probably around 1970, Jackson still had an active downtown. Like most cities, I suppose it was already on the decline at that time, but there were still shops and restaurants and lights and people walking around.

In my fragmented memories, I recall that my mother made a fuss about how we were going to see a movie at the Paramount on Capitol Street. This was a better, fancier way to see a movie because going downtown was a big deal. It was exciting. It was more than going to a movie. The movie, whatever we saw, was better because we were downtown.

I suppose it’s a universal truth that everybody wants to return to the bliss of childhood, but which bubble of memory do you pick? Riding home that night in the station wagon would probably be mine.

Why was I so happy? Surely I was picking up on my mother’s happiness that night. My whole joy in the experience sprang from being TOLD that going downtown was fun.

Among the many tender things in John Cheever’s diaries, he talks about taking his son ice skating on Christmas Eve in Central Park: “In the dark I seized him and kissed him with forlorn love … What I did, he did. When I exclaimed about the lighted rink and the music, he repeated my words. When, waiting for the bus, I crossed my legs, he crossed his legs.”

That night from my hazy childhood, I was surely echoing my mother in the same way. Oooh, let’s go up and get seats in the balcony. Carpeted stairs that curve up lead to a better place to sit: THE BALCONY! And they DO make such good popcorn here! The screen IS so much brighter. Oh and look at all of the people still out walking around on a Saturday night. Mommy, did you get milkshakes at Woolworth’s when you were little?

At these outer reaches of memory, truth and speculation blur. How much am I just projecting onto the past?

I’ve come to understand my mother as someone who was pulled in different directions. Her mother’s side of the family was fanatically religious and moralistic. But my grandfather’s people came from lower class German immigrants who liked to drink and dance. The joke is that they jumped off the boat in the Gulf of Mexico and swam to Mobile. Papaw laughed and said naughty things. My mother described dancing with him: “He just glided across that floor, smooth as silk!”

Since it turned out that I was hopelessly drawn to the worldly glamour of the city, I’ve always imagined that the same instinct was latent in my mother, the same worldliness that religious bromides could only temporarily muffle. My grandfather’s people “liked to have a good time.” And so did my mother in spite of herself. And so do I!

So I like to think that “downtown,” the milk shake, the Paramount, the people and the lights of Capitol Street were animated by my sense of my mother “having a good time,” letting just a bit of this worldly preference for urban glamour out of the box.

The time for my son to go to school alone is way overdue. As I write this, his 13th birthday just passed. So it’s actually a little embarrassing that I still deliver him to school, that we still take the bus to the subway together and then the F to Jay Street.

But I’m hopelessly sentimental.

When he was in elementary school near home, I’d walk him one block to the gate and wonder, “How many more times will I watch him lope across the wide playground and disappear through those red doors?” The number was finite. Horrifyingly finite. 31, 22, 14 or 5 more times, then I would never leave him at this gate ever again. Ever.

This theme has dominated my experience as a father. It might seem as though your kid is always jumping on the bed. ALWAYS! But this is not true. There is a fixed number of times before … well … young humans simply stop jumping on the bed.

You’re yelling “stop jumping on the bed!” but suddenly the child who WANTS to jump on the bed is gone.

I made a weird sandwich with pasta sauce and cheddar cheese for my daughter every single morning of the week for I don’t know how long – “Daddy Pizza.” And then I stopped.

Obviously, every moment is rushing away from you. Mists of nostalgia will one day shroud the simplest action you perform every day like buying coffee from a street cart or smoking a morning cigarette on a fountain that will get demolished by a collapsing skyscraper.

The other day on the subway, my son and I were both leaning against the doors the way they tell you not to. He flopped against me and leaned his head on my shoulder. We held hands. How many more times will we hold hands as we go somewhere together? The number is finite. He’ll be too cool for it soon. You can count off the number of times, then that’s it. Never again. Ever.

And how many more times will I walk him through our Curious George downtown to his Curious George school? More times than I can count on two hands? Less?

Then it will never happen again. Ever.

time travel

Most time travel stories are about performing surgery on the past to fix the present. Rewriting history. Destroying the doomsday device. Stopping the assassination that triggers World War III.

This is a pretty basic wish for everyone – to fix the past.

I’m heaving into the toilet and remember eating that questionable sushi. If I could go back in time, I could …

Well, what?

Would I really want to travel back while I was writhing on the bathroom floor? If I push the time-travel button, would I pop back to yesterday in that wretched state? I would be bent over with cramps as I hid in the bushes watching myself eat the sushi that caused my illness.

Better to wait until I’m feeling better before going back to warn myself to have something else for lunch.

But would I really go back when I felt better? Really?

I’m finally out of the woods … maybe ready for a walk … or brunch with a spicy bloody Mary … am I really going to travel back in time to avoid an illness that has already passed?

Surely there are better past pains to fix. Why not go back to when I was 10 and warn myself not to climb out on that rotten branch?

Once I started to think about fixing past physical injuries, maybe I’d look at more serious instances. Instances that caused psychological scars. Being humiliated on the playground because my pants ripped. That long car trip where I made my father lose his temper and scream at me.

What were the key missteps that lead me to a dead-end job and disappointed dreams? Could I fix those?

But I digress. I’m just saying that with the bad sushi, I’d only really want to go back while I was suffering.

Maybe I could ask my wife to go. “Sure, honey,” she says. Then she steps into the pod.

So she goes back and …


I suppose she could borrow her own phone while her past self is in the shower. She calls me and whispers: “Don’t eat the sushi!”

“How’d you know I was eating sushi? Why are you whispering?”

“Just don’t eat it. Trust me. Gotta go!”

So my wife comes back to the future, steps out of the pod and asks “Feeling okay?”

“Sure,” I say. “Why do you ask?”

I didn’t eat the sushi and didn’t get sick. I don’t know otherwise that I’d be wiped out with food poisoning. So why the hell is she asking me if I feel okay?

This whole scenario implies a world where time travel is a common activity … where we’re all zipping around tweaking our pasts.

So when she asks “Feeling okay?” I would realize that she had changed something in my past and rewritten my history. She’d tell me what happened: “My God, I’d never seen you so sick! It was worse than Mexico!”

“Wow! Thanks!” I say.

And all around this world of commonplace time-travel, people would be helping each other out like that.

“Shit! I left my phone in the taxi.”

“I’m sorry, darling, allow me to fix that for you. Be right back.”


And, again, the me in the new present would not know that I had ever lost my phone.

Or maybe I would. If time travel were that common, I might be constantly encountering my future self. He’d feel no need to whisper into a cellphone or remain otherwise secretive. I’d see myself standing there as I walked to the subway. “Listen,” I say to myself, “Don’t take the F train this morning. There’s a sick passenger.”


But you never see this scenario of informal time travel in sci-fi stories because we all know about the butterfly effect: I step on a particular twig running from a T-rex and the human race just doesn’t evolve into being. Oops.

So no telling what sort of world we’d have if everyone was zipping around retrieving phones from taxis. How could we even have a world under those conditions?

Time travel is like brain surgery. A mosquito bites the surgeon just as he’s slicing away at the tumor. Oh well, there goes my childhood.

No, time travel has to be left to the professionals who tiptoe through a past world to destroy the technology that creates the sentient robots that enslave us.

Of course, there’s always a sidekick who shoots a laser gun in a roadhouse full of Hell’s Angels and shouts some wisecrack about the future: “You assholes DESERVE Trump for president!”

But that’s just dramatic license. The overall idea is that you can’t change too much of the past without messing up the present.

What’s sometimes hard to remember is that we can’t actually travel in time.

I feel so saturated in sci-fi and fantasy stories, I have to remind myself things like: No, we don’t ACTUALLY have space ships with warp drive. No, as far as any of us know, we haven’t encountered alien life.

It feels as though we’re almost there, right? On the verge. Like any day now, you’ll be able to buy a robot that can really think.

How lucky I am to be THIS close to so many miracles of the future!

For countless centuries, 80-year old men looked at young girls with despair. Unless you’re a billionaire, they won’t ever think you’re sexy and want to sleep with you.

But by the time I’m 80 in few decades, surely there will be realistic android girls who will sit on my lap and treat me like a young man. They’ll be programmed to think my withered body is hot.

Actually … no. That won’t happen.

Why not?

Because we’re a fucking long way away from making that sort of robot. Sure, you could give grandpa a $6,000 sex doll. But he’d have to be into that sort of thing. Unless grandpa is in an advanced state of dementia, he won’t think you brought him a real hooker.

But, really, realistic android hookers who read Sartre are a bad example of a phenomenon that FEELS close but is really far away because we’re still just talking about a complicated machine. We can grasp the challenge of making such a robot in a general way. How to make the smile curve to suggest both innocence and naughtiness. How to make the voice less robotic. It’s still essentially BUILDING something – like the mechanical man in THE INVENTION OF HUGO. It takes many cogs and gears to make the automaton scribble but they’re still just cogs and gears. You aren’t trying to rethink the laws of the universe.

Time travel is a better example of the illusion. We feel as though we will do it someday relatively soon. But we won’t. We can’t travel through time. We’re not “on the verge” of figuring out how to do it.

And time still works the same old way. I’m here in something called “now.” That “now” becomes the past. Out of the past, a new now emerges. The future emerges from the now. This now. And this now is the ONLY source for the future. Which means a time machine would be useless. Useless at least for fixing anything in the past.

The future IS the past. It’s a loop. The future where you decide to go back and fix the past is always the product of the past you tried to fix.

There I am doubled over on the bathroom tile. I croak to my wife, “Go back and tell me not to eat that sushi!” Zap! She disappears. I moan and groan for a few minutes and think, “Damn, I wish she’d hurry it up.” Finally, zap, she returns.

“What happened?” she asks. “Didn’t you get my call?”

“No!” I groan.

As long as we are in a world of commonplace time travel, who knows what someone did in the future to make sure I ate that bad sushi … for reasons I might never know.

Whatever is happening to me right now is the result of everything that happened before this exact moment … including all the interventions by time travelers from the future. Whatever we might do in the future to change the past is FIXED.

Whatever is happening to me in this moment is the ONLY thing that could be happening to me in this moment.

The Now is FATED.

I was FATED to be writhing on the floor with food poisoning.

There are lots of stories based on this paradox.

Spoiler alert for this one example … the film Le Jette, which inspired Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. The protagonist witnesses a murder as a child. As he grows up he is haunted by this memory and eventually travels back to this moment. Guess who, after all of this time, the murdered man turns it out to be?

The old story of Oedipus is a time-traveler story in disguise.

The prophets can “see” into the future that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother. Of course, famously, everyone’s efforts to avoid this future make it happen. First, his parents freak out and tell a servant to kill the child. But, like the woodsman in Snow White, the servant can’t go through with it and just leaves Oedipus on the side of the mountain. Someone finds him, and he winds up being raised in another country. No one ever bothers to tell Oedipus that he was adopted. After a raving drunk at a party calls him a bastard, Oedipus goes to the oracle. The oracle gives him the same prophesy: you’ll kill your dad and marry your mother. So he runs away from his adopted parents, whom he thinks to be his real parents, and proceeds to kill his father and marry his mother.

He fulfills the prophesy by trying to escape it. If the prophets and the oracle had kept their mouths shut, nothing would’ve happened. The dictionary definition of a self-fulfilling prophesy.

An odd thing is how the prophets and oracles aren’t really offering a warning. It’s not like, “Change your ways, Oedipus, or you’ll meet the direst of fates.” No, the prophets just look at the queen’s pregnant belly and say, “Sorry to tell you, but he’s totally screwed.” They just inform the court about the baby’s inevitable destiny. The oracle just INFORMS Oedipus.

Nevertheless everyone treats the information as a warning. So, really, they treat the prophets and the oracle like time travelers from the future. In contemporary sci-fi terms, the king, queen and Oedipus then try to follow a different timeline.

Of course, the whole tragedy turns on a particular blindness. The soothsayers can’t SEE that they themselves are the cause of the tragedy they foresee.

It’s comical if you really picture it. Imagine this ominous pagan ceremony with billowing smoke and pounding drums. Some spin-chilling, Linda Blair-like prophetess slobbers and growls: “You’ll kill your dad and fuck your mom! You’ll kill your dad and fuck your mom! Aaaaahhhhhheeeee!” And she has no idea that it will only happen because she’s telling him it will.


The time traveler has to worry about the same sort of blindness. If you KNEW that your visit to the past caused a tragedy, you wouldn’t go back. You’d only be confident about the endeavor if you were blind to your own responsibility for causing the very thing you want to fix.

Imagine a world where you DID know that some time traveler caused a famous tragedy. You learn about it in school. Oh boy, today we discuss poor Oedipus. You all know him as the guy who killed his dad and married his mom. Well, what you might not know is that it never would have happened except that some well-meaning person from our time went back to warn him. Guess what? Everything Oedipus did after being told to watch out actually made it happen.

So every educated person knows that some jerk went back and caused the tragedy of Oedipus.

Then one day your parents sit you down for a talk: “It beaks our heart to tell you this, my child, but YOU are the one who will go back and cause Oedipus’ tragedy.”

How strange it would be. You don’t have any particular interest in Oedipus. You hardly know the story. You actually slept in class when they talked about it.

And you have no interest in the latest advances in time travel. The idea of being zapped to a different coordinate in the time-space continuum actually triggers a panic, a phobia of disembodiment. Think about getting beamed on Star Trek. Wouldn’t that be terrifying? No thanks!

And yet, from the moment your parents give you the bad news, you have to live with the idea that you will do this absurd thing. Ironically, you are in the same boat as Oedipus – oppressed by a kind of prophesy that no matter what you do, you will go back and ruin this guy’s life. Just because someone TOLD you this is what you’d do.

Oedipus had to walk around thinking, “Okay, when am I going to do this crazy thing? Dad walks in the room and I just stab him then start flirting with Mom. Why? It’s not just that it would be horrific. It’s that it doesn’t make any sense. What would make me think I needed to do it?”

And it would be the same for you. What? Will I just wake up one day and think, “You know what I feel like doing? I feel like trolling some guy 3,000 years in the past for no good reason”?

Understandably, you start thinking, “I don’t HAVE to do anything. I am a free individual with my own free will. Fate is a superstition.”

However, the problem is that as long as you have the story of the meddling time traveler in your mind, as long as they still teach it in school, someone DID go back. If that someone was YOU, then sooner or sooner or later you WILL go back. As long as that’s the story everyone knows.

In fact, if you stopped yourself from using time travel technology until the last seconds of your life, you still couldn’t be absolutely sure. The EKG machine is beeping. It starts to slow down. These are the last seconds of your life. Yet you still remember the story that someone went back and gave Oedipus bad news. Some men rush in and say, “Please, you have to go back and tell Oedipus that he’ll kill his father and marry his mother. If you don’t, the world will come to an end.” So in the final seconds of your life, they zap you back.

That’s how it always came to pass.

But let’s say you make it to the very end. You’re dead, and you stopped yourself from going back. Upon your death, the Oedipus story vanishes from everybody’s mind. Except yours. Because you’re dead. You could never actually know that you hacked the vicious circle of Fate.

Well, okay. So maybe you can’t be sure that you can escape your fate. But you figure you should at least avoid it. So you run away to a hut in the Himalayas, as far away as you can get from the labs where they’re developing time-travel technology. Years pass. Decades. Your beard grows down to your waist. The civilized world you fled becomes a dream. But still you remember the Oedipus story the same way.

But maybe, there’s some paradox. The timeline has actually changed. No one else in the world knows the version of the story where someone from our time goes back. The past has changed for everyone else. You remember this alternative timeline because of your unique role. So maybe you have in fact defeated Fate!

Or maybe this memory that there was ever such a story was only a dream in the first place.

A mountain climber stumbles over the cliff into your little nook.

“Hey, do you know the Oedipus story?”

“What? The guy who fucked his mom because some asshole went back and told him not to?”


So finally you say “to hell with it.” You’ll go back and say something totally innocuous. Live long and prosper. Every little thing’s gonna be all right. You most definitely will not even mention his mother or father.

So, zap, there you are in the oracle’s temple. Here comes young Oedipus. You start spouting your empty, nothing message. But right then, the temple priests pour oil on the burning coals to make it more awesome and spiritual. The hiss and roar drown out your voice.

Oedipus says, “What? Who will I fuck?”

You shout, “No! Just chill and enjoy life!”

But there’s more hiss and roar from the brazier. Then you see through the smoke that Oedipus is freaking out: “I’ll kill my father and fuck my mother? Woe is me! Woe is me!”

At that exact moment, you realize they’re pulling you back to the future and this is ALWAYS how it went down.

The best way to fix the past is in the present. By fixing the present that will become the past. Which doesn’t really tell you anything new.

The entire body of teaching about how to live, all education, all psychotherapy, all wisdom, all philosophy and, let’s face it, all religion …it’s really just trying to fix our past in the present. Trying to fix the present that will become the past.

Everything we do has an incalculable butterfly effect. We’re still running around in a primeval forest. Every twig that cracks under foot wipes out an infinity of species that could have evolved, an infinity of things that could happen … and creates the species that WILL exist, the events that WILL happen.

In truth, we ARE time travelers. Right now. In this moment. Right now … you are traveling in time. Fasten your seatbelt.

Southern Subjectivity

I’m always happy when something strikes me as “Southern.” My sister works in a retirement home in Ridgeland, Mississippi. A 95-year old resident gave her a little frosted-plastic, crystal-looking Christmas tree to sit on her mantle. Inside it, a soft glowing light gently cycles through the color spectrum. My sister said that the next time she went to work, the old lady who gave her this lovely object asked, “Did ya watch it change colors?”

We laughed about that over the several days I visited. I don’t know if the old lady herself is a native to the South, but the way we laughed about “Did ya watch it change colors?” felt VERY Mississippi.

Outside of the South, the old lady would probably have worded the question differently: “Did you NOTICE that the Christmas tree changes color.”

Of course, the real purpose of this question would be to ask, “Did you LIKE the gift I gave you? After all, I bothered to give you something, so maybe you could SAY something about it to make me feel good.”

She could have given me a loaf of banana bread. Did you like the chocolate chips in it? Maybe I didn’t eat it. What if I say “yeah, I loved the chocolate chips” and there were no chocolate chips?

What if I say “Yeah, I noticed that the color changes” and the color doesn’t in fact change?


However, the literal meaning of her question is to ask whether I was AWARE of this color-changing feature. Maybe I ripped open the package and didn’t read the box: “No! Holy shit! I DIDN’T notice that it changes color! I’ll rush home now and put in the batteries. Gosh, I feel so stupid.”

But here’s the thing that goes back to my point about the South. If old Mrs. Buchwald at the New York Retirement Home asked me “Did you notice it changes color?” I probably wouldn’t think to relate it to you as a “funny story.”

I don’t know. Maybe Mrs. Buchwald is very haughty. Maybe it occurred to her that I might be an idiot. I wouldn’t know about the color-changing feature and would think that she just gave me a piece-of-shit plastic statue. No, no, no, it’s a thing that DOES something. God forbid you think I actually believe the plastic statue … in itself, without this changing light … has any value!

I might tell you THAT as a funny story. Vain old woman!

But what if Mrs. Buchwald in the New York Retirement Home actually used the words: “Did you watch it change colors?” That would be a little more unusual.

Maybe I did read the package. I put in the batteries. I turned on the light. HOWEVER, I walked away before actually WITNESSING the colors change.

On the contrary, Mrs. Buchwald! I did indeed WATCH the colors change in the little Christmas tree.

Am I obliged to tell her how long I watched the tree? Is there an acceptable duration?

But back in Mississippi, my sister and I know what Mrs. Eubanks was really asking. She was asking: “Were you AMAZED? Did it blow your mind?” She was treating the gift as a piece of groundbreaking technology. A light that changes color inside a semi-transparent object! Goddamn!

Or maybe it was more about the concept of using the technology this way. Finally, it occurred to someone … to some GENIUS … to use this astonishing technology to enhance a holiday ornament.


Either way, what are you supposed to say to this question? Was I amazed?

Back in New York, if I believed that Mrs. Buchwald really and truly thought that this plastic Christmas tree was some advanced new product from Bell Labs and that I had never dreamed of seeing a light that changed colors in a Christmas tree statue, I’d feel a twinge of pathos. Poor old woman has lost touch with reality. When I tell you the story about her asking “Did you watch it change colors?” we might chuckle but with a bit of reservation out of respect for the dementia of the aged. It’s both funny and sad that this old lady thinks that anyone would be amazed by this color effect.

What would be more unusual in New York would be if Mrs. Buchwald, knowing full well that she gave me a cheap plastic gadget, PRETENDED it was an advanced piece of technology and expected me in turn to play along. It would be weird to feel socially obliged to pretend to be amazed. It would be weird to feel like I had to act genuinely astonished over the plastic Christmas tree when Mrs. Buchwald knows good and well that I’m not.

But that’s what my sister had to do with Mrs. Eubanks! Yes! I did watch it change colors! Wow!

If my sister wanted to be rude, she could’ve sat Mrs. Eubanks down and asked, “Now, you DO know that I’ve seen a lot of tchotchkes like this, right? You DO understand that you aren’t the first person to give a color-changing Christmas ornament to someone, right?” Mrs. Eubanks would surely get a sour look on her face and say, “Honey, what’s wrong with you? Why you gotta be ugly? You think I’m a moron?”

A key factor with this plastic Christmas tree is how the colors change SLOWLY.

You glance at it. It’s glowing deep violet. Then you turn away to do other stuff. You’re not really thinking about some tree on the mantle. Then you glance at it again. It’s green. But it doesn’t hit you that it hasn’t ALWAYS been green. Because, again, you aren’t really thinking about it.

But this shifting reality … first it’s violet … then it was green … now it’s orange … it strikes your subconscious enough times to bubble up into your conscious brain and you think: “Now wait a minute! I could swear that tree was blue!”

So … finally … you give it your conscious attention for more than a glance. You WITNESS the transition. You WATCH it change colors.

Yes! Yes, Mrs. Eubanks, I watched it change colors!

So what 95-year old Mrs. Eubanks is really doing is EXAGGERATING the effect that the subtlety of the transition has on you. The color change seems a little sneaky, so you have the fleeting impression that you have to catch it in the act.

But “fleeting” is the operative word here. You’re not really thinking much about the tree either way. Then for like a nanosecond out the corner of your eye it blips through your mind “Oh, it changes color.”

For zen-master Mrs. Eubanks, this nanosecond is an eternity, I suppose. Catching that sneaky tree in the act of changing colors is an event.

But her question “Did ya watch it changes colors?” made us realize that subliminally it was just as much of an event for us!

Nanosecond or not, there was a brief instant where we thought, “Damn, it changes color!”

That’s the funny part.

But in the South, one of the luxuries of aging is the right to say the obvious. We’ve all heard a grandfather or some senior relative say, while pointing at the TV, “Why, she’s twirling that baton while it’s on fire.” Yes, the baton is in fact flaming.

Or “Ha! Barney’s taking the bullet out of his pocket!”

Or “Look at Garth! He’s swinging out of over the audience on a rope. Looks like he’s flying.”

Superficially, this might look dumb, but I think culturally the humor of stating the obvious is pretty sophisticated. Or maybe I’m dumb.

But, more important, to me anyway, is how this way of looking at the world enriches life.

In New York, someone might take me to a restaurant and say, “Oh, try the asiago cheese balls. They’re really good.” Okay. Mmm. Yes, they do taste good.

In Mississippi, my host will take me to some random little restaurant and say, “Taste that fried okra. You have never in your life put anything that good in your mouth!”

And, really, that’s how it feels when you taste something good. For a fleeting moment, that taste is the ONLY reality. For a fleeting moment, nothing else has ever tasted that good. Ever.

So … in the South … you SAY it: “This is the best food I have ever eaten.”

To think, WHILE you’re biting into something, “This country sausage is not as good as some other country sausage I’ve had at some point in the past” is to be disconnected from that moment of being in space and time.

Sure, it’s how our screwed up brains work. You might even theorize that this is what we mean when we say we are spiritually in a fallen state. In the Garden of Eden, when Adam bit into country sausage, he fully merged with that culinary reality.

I’m glad to have a Southern hack to short circuit too much thinking: “Damn, no one makes ribs this good!”

What? No one? On the planet? The art of barbeque has become one of the great culinary contests of our age. “Who makes the best ribs?” is question that starts fist fights. Thousands of restaurants have made it their mission to win this title.

Yet here I am in some strip mall in Mississippi saying, “No one else … on the face of the earth … makes ribs as good as this anonymous little joint.”

How can I just SAY that?

Well, because in that moment it’s true for my mouth.

And, yeah, in that fleeting moment when my brain realizes that this Christmas tree is turning from red to green, it is truly amazing. Somewhere deep in my brain, my primate self leaps around like those monkeys in 2001 freaking out over the monolith.

Hell, yeah, Mrs. Eubanks, I DID watch it change colors.

Down and Out in the Monteleone

I’m back in my beloved Hotel Monteleone. I fly back to Brooklyn in the morning.

Instead of strolling over to Pirate’s Alley as I had intended, I never left the Carousel Bar downstairs. I clicked around a full 360 degrees four times, one tall Maker’s for each trip. In the mirror behind the bartender, I kept making eyes at a nice-looking lady with a beauty-shop hairdo and burgundy lipstick. Or burGUNdy, since we’re in New Orleans. I figured she was a soccer mom down from Laurel. Hot to trot in the Big Easy. But then her husband arrived, bald and paunchy. Not that I’m a prize. At least she shot me a wistful parting glance.

Now I’m back upstairs looking out at the cars crossing the bridge in the distance. Sipping on my Maker’s. I was stumbling halfway out of the bar before I remembered I could pour my drink into a plastic to-go cup.

Little stars are moving across the bridge.

Glad I have the Maker’s even if it has taken me to a place of despair instead the oblivion I was seeking. Granted it’s a luxuriant despair. I’m propped up here on the pillows of my king-sized bed. I’ve cracked open the window to hear the street sounds. Predictably, a little trio is playing 14 floors down on Royal. A trumpet, a tuba and a snare. “Saint James Infirmary” – appropriate for my mood, but it even sounds French Quarter-happy bouncing up over all the people out to party.

I’m here up above full of a sense of fatigue. The phrase “I’m tired of fighting” is running through my brain. I think I just said that out loud even.

The crazy thing is, I’ve never really seen myself being in a fight. Not in particular. As such. But it’s like I’m saying to the bridge: I’m tired of fighting THIS fight, the fight I’ve been fighting since WHEN. Since forever. THE fight.


This will amuse you. I was over in Biloxi in the big condo by the beach. I think I was on the 14th floor there too. Or maybe I’m just distorting reality to force symmetry. Either way, we were up a bit.

But I drove around to the Winn Dixie to stock up for the weekend, and, damn, they were smoking ribs in the parking lot. Holy shit. With corn on the grill. A big pot of baked beans. I ate a piled-up plate in the car and got soaked in BBQ sauce. Amazing.

Driving back, I turned onto Beach Highway and there was this biker going along next to me. I don’t think he had a helmet on or maybe just one of those old ones that don’t cover your whole head in a bubble. I just have a clear picture of his sunglasses and big mustache. Classic biker from central casting. Denim jacket with the sleeves ripped off at the shoulder. Skull tattoo on his bicep.

But he wasn’t passing me. Just riding along side. So I slowed down. Then he slowed down. Then I slowed down more. He slowed down more. And, you know, there are only those two lanes, so the traffic’s backing up in my rear view. So I speed back up to the limit. And he speeds back up and is still right there at my elbow. I speed up a bit more.

He speeds up a bit more. He never turns to look at me. Just cruises along. Sputtering. It was a Harley.

So I was wondering, “What the hell? What have I done to provoke this?” I didn’t remember cutting him off or anything. Wouldn’t he be screaming at me if I had pissed him off?

Was this a butch gay thing? Like one of those guys who goes to Rawhide on the weekend? Was I supposed to know the signals? Was I supposed to know how, where and when to pull off the road so he could blow me or I could blow him – however gay-butch-biker scenarios are supposed to be worked out on Highway 90 on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

I decided that I shouldn’t try to go faster. The speed limit is 45, I think. Plus I was worried it’d be aggressive or flirty in a butch-gay-biker way. “Try to catch me, Big Boy.”

So I slowed down to 20 or something ridiculous. He stuck with me for a second or two then sputtered off.

Weird, huh?

I felt bad I’m not gay. You never have women chasing you on a Harley for sex. Some blonde real estate agent in a beige skirt and heels. A bright smile. Mouthing in the wind: “Can I suck your dick?” Oh, okay, fine. I’ll pull over.

Now they’re playing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”

Anyway. I’m trying to figure out what happened in Biloxi that might’ve triggered this crisis crashing down on me.

Really it was the same boring trip as usual, sitting around with my family. It hurts to laugh at the same story about Mark crashing the mini-bike into my uncle’s Volkswagen. It’s not really funny anymore. But it’s a reflex to laugh. My mouth and lungs laugh. Ha, ha, ha.

Maybe seeing how everyone aged got to me. You don’t see yourself getting old. Not really. But then after another year of living in your own world you see how your father has shrunk and your brother just looks like some random old guy in line at the hardware store. So I have to figure I look like a random old guy too. But I can’t say I was conscious of any profound brooding about getting old.

I got up this morning early before the drive back to New Orleans. No one else in the condo was awake. I sat out on the balcony with my coffee and watched the sun come up. 14 or however many stories up looking across the Gulf you can see how shallow it is. Big lumps of sand pushing up through the indigo water. Looks like you could wade all the way to Cancun.

What always hits me on these visits is how this, the coast, is still Mississippi. It looks like a beach but doesn’t have the paradisiacal temperate atmosphere like Laguna or Cancun. It’s still hot, muggy Mississippi.

I had stolen one of my sister’s Marlboros. Forgot how good one is with a black coffee. But all of a sudden, sitting there, I just remembered what it felt like to live in Mississippi. I mean this in a deep existential way: the experience of BEING in Mississippi.

Paul Bowles said, “Certain areas of the earth’s surface contain more magic than others. Had anyone asked me what I meant by ‘magic’ I should probably have defined the word by calling it a secret connection between the world of nature and the consciousness of man, a hidden but direct passage which bypasses the mind.”

He was mainly thinking about Morocco.

Mississippi, I think, is magical in the same way. But neither Bowles nor I mean by “magical” what the commercials mean when they say Disney world or some cruise is “magical.” In Bowles’ stories, you find people getting their tongues cut out or just confronting the vast pointlessness of existence by having a tea party in a sand storm.

My Mississippi was … is … a formula for me: heat plus mass insanity equals Mississippi. The insanity is like Eliot’s London fog seeping in everywhere. Or like how in the days before cars, the smell of horse piss followed you everywhere. Even in the nicest salons. Growing up and for as long as I lived in Mississippi, no matter where I was or who I was talking to, Faulkner’s Benjy was wailing nearby. In fact, the crazy feeling you get reading “The Sound and the Fury” is exactly the magic I’m thinking about.

I drove back to New Orleans on Beach Highway with the familiar manic feeling of moving through a myth or dream. A bright cloudless sky with a burning Choctaw sun-god sun blazing over the twisted live oaks.

But the moment I was cruising down Canal, passing the palm trees and a street car, the insanity lifted.  Then when I got to the front of the Monteleone and slipped my $5 to the bell captain and saw the big grandfather clock in the lobby, I was sort of laughing at how I go through the same experience every visit – falling deep into a crazed existential mania in Mississippi that has vanished by the time I sit down at the Carousel bar.

But this time, as I clicked around, a last thin gossamer thread to that insanity remained. The crazy Mississippi magic was leaking into my real world. I looked around the bar — Midwestern tourists, frat boys, a group of women erupting in violent laughter – and could see the insanity glinting and flashing here and there. Benjy was about to start howling.

I’m just talking about that panic you feel when it seems crazy and random that we’re here, all of us, in space and time. And it’s more like we aren’t really here but none of us has realized it. We’re all ghosts. Haunting the Beach Highway. Haunting the Winn Dixie parking lot. And now haunting the Carousel bar.

At the other end of the long room of tables with candles, a little band started playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

The French Quarter is hilarious. There’s always someone playing “Saints,” and, as long as you’re drunk, it always makes you feel good. And it was almost comical in that moment in the Carousel downstairs. It struck me that the utter madness of playing “Saints” at the least provocation cancels out that insane magic out there beyond the city trying to come flooding over the levee.

My Katrina reference isn’t accidental.

Beyond the human tragedy of that storm, there was a mythological shock of seeing the city flooded, seeing the failure of the levee to keep out the water.

It’s the same thing Bowles was describing in “The Sheltering Sky” – the idea that the dome of manic blue over Morocco held back the night. It could crack like an eggshell any time.

With “The Saints” pushing back the darkness, I ordered another Maker’s. I orbited on my stool and listened to the whole set, then stumbled back into the hotel lobby with my drink. But the blues were already spilling over the levee. The joy … that wonderful drunk New Orleans joy … was flooded by the heavy feeling of wanting to weep.

So here I am propped up on my pillows watching the lights move back and forth over the river. “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” coming up from Royal.

I’m exhausted holding out the darkness all of these years, holding out the idea that there’s no point to it all, that I can never get anywhere, that I left Mississippi but it never left me.

I’m just sitting here in this king-sized bed letting the darkness come flooding in, filling my heart.


14 floors down, the little trio just finished up “Closer Walker.” They went right into another tune.

Can you guess what it is?