Gotham Diary:
August 2017 (I)

1, 2 and 3 August

Tuesday 1st

Yesterday, the new record-player arrived. I could call it a phonograph, but that would be untrue to the experience of playing records, which is what I did for an hour or two in the afternoon. Playing records was something that teenagers did in the Fifties and Sixties. It didn’t matter whether the records were pop, classical, or jazz. Or comedy — comedy was very popular with brainy kids. Later, when we acquired components, we would refer to the stereo. The record-player itself gave way to the turntable. Unlike record-players, turntables were incapable of making a sound; you had to hook them up to amplifiers, which in turn fed speakers. If an amplifier included a radio dial, as most did but rarely mine, it was called a receiver.

Last week, Ray Soleil, who is diligently evacuating our storage unit — as of Friday afternoon, if all goes according to schedule, there will be no more books in the room, not a one — brought a few dozen LPs that I’d elected to save up to the apartment. When I unpacked the record-player, an inexpensive Ion product, and plugged in the power (and figured out how to turn it on), I reached for one of the oldest LPs in the bunch: Heavenly Echoes of My Fair Lady, played by George Feier, “with rhythm accompaniment.”

The record belonged to my parents and is quite scratchy. I don’t know how they came to have it. Did someone take them to the Café Carlyle, where George Feier was as much a fixture as Bobby Short would be later on? It’s hard to see them there, but this would have been in 1956 or 1957, when My Fair Lady was the toast of the town, and my mother was still in her thirties. It’s not impossible. Nor is it impossible that someone simply gave them the record as a gift.

The album cover is a sketch of George Feier at the piano. Overhead, on clouds not terribly like the one that Al Hirschfeld created for his iconic poster for the musical, several gentlemen in various historical costumes are standing around. They are, of course, great composers. The “heavenly echoes” are Feier’s parodies of the showtunes, each written in a composer’s recognizable style, which, in case you don’t get it, is supplemented by an obvious quote from the composer’s actual music. Bach and Mozart are immediately identifiable, and, when I appropriated the LP, sometime between the ages of twelve and fourteen, I duly labeled them with a ball-point pen. I got Liszt and Johann Strauss right, too. But I identified Verdi as Rachmaninoff before scratching that out and labeling him correctly — once you listened to Feier’s entertainment, you knew who the parodied composers were. Rachmaninoff and Chopin confounded me. On  Chopin’s frock coat, “Rach” and “Chopin” are both scratched out, and “Rach” written again; while Rachmaninoff’s figure bears a scratched-out “Rogers,” ostensibly corrected by “Loewe.” I must have decided that the composer of “The Rain in Spain” was also in heaven, and I already knew enough about Broadway to assume that Richard Rodgers must be connected to a hit show. I won’t describe my later defacement of the album cover further than to say that it involves the name of Sigmund Romberg and constitutes embarrassing testimony to my very uncertain early-adolescent tastes. It amazes me that the LP and its jacket are still in my possession.

While the record played, I sat in my chair and sipped iced tea. I don’t usually sit around listening to things. I listen to music when I’m in the kitchen, or doing housework. (I find that I can no longer read or write if music is playing.) But listening to music usually involves a playlist on an iPod that lasts for hours. Listening to records, in contrast, is a matter of playing one or two cuts from an LP and then moving on to something else. It was one thing to sit through George Feier; the rest of my record playing was more ambulatory. If I sat down, it was only to get up again in a minute. I hadn’t heard any of these records in years — decades — and a lot of what I played yesterday was frankly surprising. Beverly Sills’s recording of Victor Herbert’s “Art Is Calling To Me” — a novelty march sung by a princess who dreams of being a “peachy screechy cantatrice” — is strangely muffled, as if Sills were singing from inside a double bass. In my first recording of Bach’s Cantata BWV 78, the second number, a duet, “Wir eilen mit schwachen doch emsigen Schritten,” is sung not by two women but by two choir sections, and the sopranos are rather shrill. The harpsichord, taking the place of the more conventional positif organ, is not entirely audible. But this was how I got to know the music and I loved it; it does sound somehow more angelic. Lovely as ever was the mazurka from Messager’s Isoline, which I’ve never been able to find on CD; I don’t know why the piece isn’t better known. The last cut on that LP, oddly, is a recording of Berlioz’s grandiose arrangement of “La Marseillaise,” with the final verse sung by children, joined by the adults at the thundering end. I couldn’t resist revisiting this performance, although the anthem itself, bellicose and nationalistic, always makes me squirm.

In a different key, I listened to “Phobos and Deimos Visit Mars,” from an electronic album by Larry Fast called Synergy: Cords. The LP is translucent and milky white. And then I listened to something that I do have on CD, as well as in MP3 format, “Simoon,” by the Yellow Magic Orchestra. I kept that LP because of its cover art, which turns out to be shockingly prophetic of Alex Garland’s film, Ex Machina. But if there was ever a song made for playing records, it is “Simoon.” This sinuous rhumba transports the listener right into a Gong Li movie set in Shanghai in the Thirties (but not Shanghai). The room filled with virtual cigarette smoke.

It goes without saying that the record player comes equipped with a USB cable; the point is to play the records once, to feed the music into the computer, and then, if you live in an apartment and are haunted by Marie Kondo, to get rid of the vinyl. But I can’t even think about that until I’ve shredded all the bank statements and other useless documents that slumbered in the storage unit, and found places for the thirty-odd books that decided to keep at home. Playing records was very charming, but I don’t know when I’ll do it again, once I’ve sampled everything that arrived last week.

Then I went out. I don’t usually go out in the late afternoon, either, but there was a reading at the Barnes & Noble up 86th Street that I didn’t want to miss. You could say that I’d been playing records as a way of passing the time without getting caught up in something. Which is pretty much how it was, when we used to listen to records while we waited to grow up.


Wednesday 2nd

The reading at Barnes & Noble that I mentioned yesterday was given by Heather Harpham, to promote her new — and her first — book, Happiness. I had not heard of Heather before receiving, sometime last month, a circular email from her husband, the novelist Brian Morton, announcing the event. I am a great admirer of Brian’s novels, and, as my use of first names suggests, I have exchanged a few letters with him over the years. Since he lives and works pretty much where I grew up, notoriously “sixteen miles from Times Square,” I have blathered about taking the train up to Bronxville and having lunch with him, and I still hope to do that. At the moment, hobbling up 86th Street the two blocks to Lexington Avenue was just about the most I could do.

Although I have re-read Brian’s novels several times, and notwithstanding the sporadic emails, I wouldn’t say that I know him personally. He gives every evidence of being a private person, and also seems to be the sort of man, rare enough, who would much rather hear what other people are thinking about than talking about himself. So when I read a few lines of publicity prose about Happiness, I developed an almost instant Too Much Information rash. It seemed a betrayal of our cordial non-intimacy to learn that when Heather got pregnant, shortly after the turn of the century, Brian didn’t want to be a father. He was forty-five, Heather nearly fifteen years younger. He was comfortable in his Upper West Side life — but don’t let me get in the way.

After our third date, we went back to his apartment. He was a studio dweller on the Upper West Side, twenty-sixth floor, a view of the George Washington Bridge, which he revered. A wall of windows and little else. He had a single pot and stacks of books. Against the barrenness, he’d waged the smallest possible stand — a decorative postage stamp. Joe Louis.


But Brian knew how to work. His life was ordered, boundaried to the extreme. A man who, by his own admission, ate broccoli with brown rice and garlic every night for dinner. A man who pruned back the trivial decisions, who wore French Blue dress shirts and black pants every day of the week for consistency’s sake. A man with an embedded internal clock, which told him to sit and write at the same hour, day after day. A man with a gift, and the dense garden of his habit grown around it for protection. (12-13)

I think that Heather puts this all very well, very well, and in a voice that I find distinctively her own. (The “dense garden of habit” is the richest metaphor that I’ve encountered this year — so rich that I have to ask, is it a metaphor?) I suppose that, if you don’t pay attention, Heather might sound like just another woman writing about her child’s harrowing disease, and, on the basis of the snips that I read before I had the chance to open the book, that is what I was expecting. Despite the risk of betrayal, I would read Happiness out of loyalty to Brian.

But loyalty to Brian is hard for any reader to sustain after the first couple of pages, because Heather uses snapshots of falling in love with him in New York as somewhat ironic cushions to soften the blow of her newborn daughter’s endangered life not so very many months later in San Francisco. There is something wrong with the child’s blood: her red blood cells don’t mature, but fall apart, releasing raw iron into her body. Keeping her alive requires transfusions, monthly. And while Heather tries to cope with this chaos — as I understand it, although Gracie’s disease was cured, it was never actually diagnosed — Brian is back East in his dense garden. Wounded by his rejection of fatherhood and marriage, Heather has returned to her native Marin County and she has not kept in touch. For all intents and purposes, she and Brian have broken up, and, although his readiness to provide child support is never in doubt, Heather is set to be a single mom.

That’s very well what might have happened, had Gracie been healthy. It wasn’t long after I realized that I wasn’t reading Happiness out of loyalty to Brian or to anybody else — that I was reading Happiness because I couldn’t put it down — that I began to expect Heather to surprise me. I knew that the story was going to end happily; Gracie was present at the reading, after all, and her mother told the audience that she was cured. But I also knew, not too far in, that the story was not really about Gracie, or about illness and the dread of waiting for test results, even though there’s plenty of all that. The story was about a marriage, a marriage that did not survive a crisis but that was undertaken because of one, a wedding that took more than four years to perform. It is a story told by one party to the marriage, very much alone and uncertain about her partner, and not from the bogus viewpoint of the first person plural. Happiness is full of small gusts of dark anger. The anger passes; the bruises heal. But the distance between spouses is registered, and without the pretense of even-handedness. Writing the book, I should say, Heather Harpham was not angry at Brian Morton. But she certainly had been angry with him, sometimes murderously so. Through it all, she loved him. I can think of very few novels that have encompassed the emotional complexity of marriage as well as this memoir, and even fewer that portray marriages between two such well-intentioned people. In the following passage, these well-intentioned people, closer to the end of their ordeal than they dare think, are also exhausted.

We brush our teeth, climb under the covers, in silence. It is obvious what should happen next; it has been weeks. Maybe months. I’ve lost track. But it is equally obvious this is not going to happen. I turn away, but let my foot drift over to touch Brian, the smallest of conciliatory gestures. He doesn’t move away or toward me; just lets my foot rest against his. Toes to toes, the best we can do. Brian turns to face me. “Alone is one way to get through adversity, but is it the best way?” This formulation is a joke, something we say. That’s one way to … whatever the thing is … but is it the best way? No response from me. No giggle, no touch. Silence.

“In hard times,” Brian says, “people typically do better when they huddle together for warmth.”

“Who are you, Shackleton? I know how to cope with adversity, Brian, but thanks for the lesson.”

This silences us both. I have no idea why I’m lashing out. Gracie is OK, she’s sleeping not six miles away. But I am bizarrely furious. Fury in search of an object.

We’ve been dangled by our ankles while children dropped around us; children fell. Surely there is someone to blame. (258)

Yes: children. Gracie has a younger sibling, and the younger sibling saves Gracie’s life. Of course it is her parents who do this, by engendering the sibling, which, characteristically, they manage to do in spite of themselves. Everything that blooms in this book, flower or weed, is the fruit of one relationship, one pair of stumbling human beings, determined to do the right thing, even when they don’t agree what that is, while never being misled by ideals, the narcissistic voice of righteousness. From time to time, righteousness blows through Heather at gale force, but it never knocks her down. As for Brian, Happiness is not his story. And although the TMI problem faded almost immediately, I did learn enough about Brian Morton to doubt that he is ever going to tell it.


Thursday 3rd

A few years ago, a regular reader suggested that I have a look at William Janeway’s Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy (Cambridge, 2012). I bought it, but did not look at it; the book drifted farther and farther from my reading pile, and a couple of weeks ago I rescued it from the storage unit, whither I think it was sent when we moved into this apartment and many very hasty decisions were made. Janeway’s book is clearly daunting, not really meant for general readers. I hate to think what it cost: the paper is very heavy, and the general presentation is that of a classy textbook. The dust jacket is not particularly inviting. The title takes the top half, while the bottom shows a smartphone; there’s a blurb in between. The pale blue background creates the clinical effect of a handbook on the side-effects of chemotherapy.

I did what I often do with perplexing books: I began in the middle, with the chapter called “The Banality of Bubbles.” It turned out to be a sharp history of European and American bubbles since the tulip craze, including a few that I hadn’t really heard of, such as the joint-stock bubble of the 1690s, which was swept into oblivion by the South Sea Bubble of 1720. Midway through the following chapter, “Explaining Bubbles,” though, I realized that I was going to have to go back to the beginning if I was to make sense of the author’s frequent references to “the three-player game” and to “Cash and Control.”

Janeway, a venture capitalist at Warburg Pincus with a PhD in Economic History from Cambridge University, is a very serious contrarian. He rejects neoliberal economic theory, the efficient market hypothesis, and all the bad ideas that landed us in the soup in 2008. I’ve worked my way back to where I was in the book, and am now in the middle of “The Necessity of Bubbles,” but although this might sound callow, Janeway makes an important distinction between asset bubbles and credit bubbles. The latter are not so good. But without bubbles, there is no innovation, because innovation, in his view, arises from waste, from spending millions of dollars on hundreds of start-ups so that one or two will pan out. He is also a believer in big-state capitalism, but I haven’t reached his discussion of that, so I’ll limit myself to observing that he recognizes and applauds the government’s role in fostering medical and technological advances.

It is all fairly difficult to digest, because although Janeway is a clear writer who avoids jargon, he is very much writing from deep within the enterprise space, where the physics is a little different from out here on city streets. And as a historian, he is informed but somewhat amateur; he does not always frame the developments that he writes about as clearly as a professional might do. But it’s also true that I’m reading against him, noting the places where his enthusiasm for innovation occludes the importance of sustainability.

As I’ve written at least once, I think that the arc of innovation that arose in the Eighteenth Century has touched ground. I don’t mean that there won’t be anything new in the future; for all I know, we’re on the eve of the most sweeping innovation of all. But I believe that we have passed the point at which we can abandon the old when we adopt the new. There is simply too much of the old. We need a government that will take the maintenance of American infrastructure as a serious national-security issue, and spend on bridges and aqueducts instead what it is currently blowing on weapons that seem designed for wars that nobody is ever going to fight. (It is certainly time for hackers to be militarized.) Our cities are surrounded by peripheries that need to be repurposed with large-scale vision. Sprawl makes no sense to anyone but the opportunistic, small-time developer, and has degenerated into a gamble that most players will lose. In short, we have a lot of junk to take care of; it is not going to go away. We need an Upkeep Economy.

Paradoxically, this may require some innovations in finance. No, no more of that! I hear you cry. But I’m not thinking of novel financial instruments. I’m thinking of micro- or even nano-transactions, payments or levies so small but so numerous that funds pile up automatically and painlessly. I’m thinking of an EZ Pass that you carry in your wallet and that charges you a penny every time you step out on the pavement. Or the first time every day that you step out on the pavement — it really won’t do to get too specific at this stage. A tenth of a penny! Those pennies would be marked for funding the repavement of the street. Funds might even be used to develop better paving technologies — quicker, less intrusive, more lasting — replacing the role of asset bubbles in innovation with activity bubbles. In a way, I suppose, I’m trying to turn the waste process of innovation around, and run it in reverse. I don’t command the language or abstraction of economics well enough to explain what that might mean, and in fact it might be impossible. But my thoughts bend in that direction.

Certainly it had never occurred to me that innovation depends on financial bubbles. If that’s the case, then we might explain the Industrial Revolution not in the conventional terms of technological advances but rather in terms of financial preparedness: by the end of the Eighteenth Century, Western economies had experienced several bubbles (albeit unproductive ones), which, instead of inoculating investors against them, appear to have created an itch. Not everybody who participates in a bubble loses his shirt! As Janeway points out, the American railroad bubble of the 1850s provided the Union with the transportation network that played such a great role in its victory.


Bon week-end à tous!