Archive for August, 2011

Goofing Off
30 August 2011

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Typical. You pray for normal, so that you can back to all the things that you want to do, but when normal comes, you just goof off. “Want to do” is  a spongy phrase. There are things that I want to do, but not right now.

So, instead of goofing off, I went to the movies this morning. Our Idiot Brother is a quirky, sometimes goofy movie with a warm caramel center, so I’m not recommending it to anyone, but I liked it a lot. A lot more than anyone else in the theatre, if laughter means anything. The cast was terrrific. Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer, and Zooey Deschanel play three sisters who think they’re so smart when in fact their almost as idiotic as their brother, Ned — who is not so idiotic, really, although he is excessively trusting. You’re led to expect a comic variation on King Lear, in which the girls have to take turns looking after their brother, but instead he straightens out their confused lives. Elizabeth Banks, whom I’ve adored ever since Seabiscuit, is Rachel McAdams on a less blazing scale, and she suits the cut of Bob Rafelson’s film-making down to the ground. And that’s just the core. I’ll be here all day if I start running through the excellent supporting roles, but Rashida Jones simply must be mentioned for her ultra-convincing portrayal of a butch corporate lawyer.

It seems that I’ll be going out to Fire Island tomorrow; Kathleen heard from the owner of the house that all is well out there. One or two screens needed to be replaced, and that was all. So it looks as though Kathleen will have the long weekend on the beach that she’s been looking forward to all summer after all. She had certainly given up on it a few days ago, when Irene was threatening widespread devastation. Actually, Irene delivered on the widespread davastation, jsut not in the places that concerned us. 

29 August 2011

Monday, August 29th, 2011

After I’d finished putting everything back out where it belonged on the balcony — for good measure, I washed the mud-spattered bedroom windows — I sat for a while beneath what I realized was the last of Irene, a counter-clockwise roil of lowering clouds from which rain did not fall. Then I got dressed and persuaded Kathleen to take a short walk up and down our block, just to see what was what. And what we saw was that most of the restaurants were open. Gristede’s was open. It was comforting to note that the new storefront medical center across the street was also open. We decided to go to a restaurant that we haven’t been to in a while, but it was too early in the day for that, so we went back upstairs, amused at the gusting raindrops that had come out of nowhere, as if to remind us that we’d just dodged a hurricane.

Later, just before bed, I brought my nightcap out to the bench and sat down again. Splotchy grey had given way to velvety midnight blue. Beneath the transcendently clear sky, thousands of lights gleamed from thousands of apartment windows, here and in Queens. The red light atop the New York State Pavilion was blinking nicely (it lies beneath the approach to LaGuardia). All was in order, or appeared to be, and I felt enormous gratitude.

(I’m not one of those people who has to know to whom or what gratitude is owing in order to feel grateful. A small portion of my gratitude is, however, earmarked for Mayor Bloomberg, who’s a firm but well-intentioned grown-up if there ever was one.)

Walking on the beach at Fire Island, two weeks ago, I thought about being tumbled by the surf and the inherent dangerousness of what we call Nature. I lost the taste for natural wonders very early, if, indeed, I ever had it; the only bit of scenery that has ever impressed me deeply is the view from the hotel at Lake Louise, in the Canadian Rockies, because there, for once, Nature got it right, and arranged the mountains and the glacier and the lake and even the sky just as a gifted landscaper would, given the power to do so. For the most part, Nature’s effects — canyons, waterfalls, Matterhorns — strike me as the products of a very troubled adolescent, a kid who needs help. This is a minority view nowadays, but, prior to the Nineteenth Century, it was an almost universally shared understanding. Nobody, except perhaps for philosophers, ever used to walk on the beach, not back then.

By the time Irene reached Manhattan, it was just another summer storm, as incapable as they all are of dinging our town. And, just like every other summer storm, it wreaked havoc in the suburbs. Being a very big summer storm in terms of expanse, it wreaked havoc in all the suburbs, and cleaning up after Irene is going to take a long time and cost millions if not billions. How long will it take for people to grasp that the suburban way of life is not sustainable?

Ultimately, Nature prevails. If nothing else, tectonic plates will eventually drag New York City into the ocean, or push it underneath New Jersey. But there is something meaningless about that destiny, because it will take so long to happen that no one human being, nor even a human civilization, will see it happen. People will come and go too quickly to notice. On the storm-tossed time scale that does register with me, I’m not cocky about Irene’s failure to make Manhattan life miserable. I’m just grateful that it didn’t, grateful that it did no harm to my family. For a few moments last night, looking out at the world I love, I was touched by serenity. I won’t forget it.

Gotham Intermezzo II
28 August 2011

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

When I told Kathleen that I was going to right the table, she sighed, “Well, if you’re sure that we’re not going to have any more high winds…” I groaned. “Whatever winds we’re going to have, my dear, they’re not going to be hurricane winds.” Irene had long since been downgraded to tropical storm status. What was puzzling was its complete dissipation. As the eye crossed over Brooklyn, our local weather became understandably calm. But that never really changed afterward. What happened to the rest of that huge mass of wind and rain?

The balcony floor is drying up rapidly. As soon as I get the hutch back up on the dresser, all the extra glass- and china-ware that I store in it (all of it having been run through the dishwasher yesterday) can take leave of the dining table, which will be convenient. I’ve already started taking the potted plants back out to the étagères, which I weighted down with bricks. Soon, everything will be back and in place, and I will have only one little problem: water, water everywhere.

There are the bottles of Deer Park and Poland Spring meant for drinking, and the gallons of some cheaper stuff that I kept in my bathroom. There are various household vessels, ranging from a humongous lobster pot to a wine carafe, filled nearly to the brim with water. There’s even a stovetop teakettle ready to go. Because we’re by no means through the hurricane season yet, I’m going to find a place for the store-bought water. As to the rest — my hope is to conserve it for watering plants. Given the reduced number of plants (I threw away anything the least bit scraggly), we’ll see how long that lasts.

Power was cut to Fire Island at 6 PM yesterday. That means that I’m in for a treat when I get out to the (presumably undamaged) house in the next few days. The prospect of cleaning out the refrigerator tempers, if only slightly, my rejoicing at seeing the last of Irene.

I took great comfort throughout the ordeal from Andrew Thompson’s history of the reign of George II. I wouldn’t want to have to live in the 1740s, but I never tire of dreaming about them.

27 August 2011

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

Back in town, waiting for the hurricane to show us what it can do, I’m haunted by the image of the crepuscular party boat that I captured the other night at dinner, out on Fire Island.  Was it a party boat? It seemed to be a ferry boat that had been fitted out with an upper-deck awning and a few colored lights. It drifted by in no particular hurry and seemed to be heading nowhere, although it could easily have pulled up to a dock at Ocean Beach, behind me. It passed in silence, either too far away or too subdued to pour forth noise. Perhaps it was on its way to pick up more partiers! Perhaps I have an over-active imagination.

When my imagination steps in for information that I don’t have, the result is usually uncomfortable. I’m very familiar with the twists and kinks of my imagination, but that doesn’t weaken its grip.It doesn’t stop, for example, the flood of pseudo-foreshadowing irony. Below almost any peaceful, everyday scene, it can paste the caption, “This is what it looked like before the unforeseen disaster struck. Stay tuned.” Little does this old fellow over here in the corner, reading the Times as he sips his morning tea, know that he is about to be gobbled up by Godzilla — or, in this case, Irene. Strike that. The old fellow knows that he is being stalked by Irene. But what does that mean? Cue my imagination.

I’m hoping that, by now, Megan, Ryan, Will and Astor are tootling along in their Zip Car to Pennsylvania, where they’re going to weather out the storm with Ryan’s family. Aside from normal worries about highway driving, I’m glad that they’re not stuck in their flat in flood-zoned Alphabet City. (Nor will they be marooned uptown with us, where there are no extra beds of any kind, in case the power goes out — up eighteen flights of stairs and with no running water.) Once I hear that they’ve arrived in Easton, I’ll stop worrying about them. Meanwhile, there is plenty to do here, including the evacuation of the balcony. I’m saving that exercise for the later part of the afternoon. This morning, I’m going to do a few things in the kitchen that will probably be helpful later, and then I’m going to straighten up the bedroom and the blue room, which have gone untended for nearly a month.

Are we prepared? Prepared for what? Who knows. The MTA shutdown means that everyday commerce is going to be severely constrained until the storm has passed through and the grosser damage has been sorted out. Maybe, here in Yorkville, the hurricane will amount to nothing worse than high winds and pouring rain, but most parts of the metropolitan area are going to be far more sorely tested — I think. (Maybe the winds will blow our apartment building down. That would confirm the opinion that long-time tenants hold of its construction.) When will life “get back to normal”? I put it in quotes because we seem to be living in a time when normality is elusive. (When the chairman of the Federal Reserve calls the nation’s policy-making system “broken,” things are not normal.) And, beyond the storm and its aftermath, what will remain of Kathleen’s dearly longed-for Labor Day break on Fire Island? What will remain of Fire Island?

Maybe what draws me to the photograph is that it’s a bit out of focus.


Gotham Intermezzo
23-24 August 2011

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

23 August

One of the things that I have to do today is find one of those three-prong plug adapters for the beach house, so that I can keep the laptop powered while I’m sitting at the dining table. I may have one here in the apartment, but I’m not going to look very hard; it’s easier to go the hardware store and pick one up. Already taken care of: meds refills; clogged bathtub drain.

After lunch with Ray Soleil yesterday, I asked if he’d mind crossing the street to go to Williams-Sonoma. “I’ve got a craving to go to a store selling things that I might actually want to buy.” Really glam items: hot pads and an apron in the latest W-S stripe. Vac-U-Vin’s pineapple gizmo, for extracting a spiral of the best fruit without attacking the skin. (Good heavens, it has its own Wikipedia entry!) Stuff like that. Then we progressed to Crawford-Doyle. There were two books in the window that I had to have. That’s a figurative “two,” because, while Andrew Thompson’s George II consists of a single volume, the Dumbarton Oaks edition of the Douay-Rheims bible consists of three, with more to come.

A book about George II! As Andrew Thompson points out at the beginning, “He figures not at all in Sellars and Yeatman’s immortal guide to British history, 1066 and All That.” A no-kind of king! Even worse: “Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support the story often associated with George that he began the tradition of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus during performances of the Messiah.” Hell, there’s no evidence that he ever even heard the Hallelujah Chorus! Very exciting stuff. Principle understatement so far: “The circumstances of Ernst August’s marriage were unusual, even by seventeenth-century standards.” I had to restrain myself from calling up Ray with the story.

24 August

In the end, I’m left with the impression that if only Maria Callas had had a little more Tyne Daly in her makeup, her life would not have been quite so sad. This is not to fault Ms Daly’s triumphant performance. Master Class is a parlando opera about the sunset recollections of a highly gifted, highly temperamental diva. The life of Maria Callas provides Terrence McNally with such rich dramatic material that the point of the show is very much not to bring Callas to life, as it were. We can leave that to the female impersonators. 

Everyone in the cast was great, even the genuine tenor, Garrett Sorenson, but I found myself looking to see what Jeremy Cohen, playing Manny, the suppressed/repressed piano accompanist, was up to. There’s a moment when Callas puts her hand on Manny’s shoulder, during the tremolo run-up to Lady Macbeth’s first-act aria, and I thought that I was going to faint, because surely that’s what Manny was going to do, now that he had been touched by La Divina — and Mr Cohen did not disappoint. Manny did faint, you could see the shock flash across his face. But it was a very quick fit, and Manny’s hands were never tripped up on the keyboard.

I went to see Tyne Daly, but I came away hugely warmed by the playwright’s belief, which I share, in the absolute primacy, in opera, of following the score. “It’s all in the score,” Callas tells her audience. All the singer has to do is listen to the music. There is no need for directorial accretions. How much I’d like to see a Macbeth stripped of everything but what Verdi explicitly calls for.


Although I heartily recommend Jeff Madrick’s The Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present, I wish that it were a stronger book. Madrick and his editors appear to have felt obliged, unfortunately, to provide the general reader with a chronological narrative that is not as comprehensive as it ought to be — there are many rushed, and more than a few nearly incoherent, passages — but that is also fairly unnecessary. Instead of attempting to write a capsule history of the financialization of American business, Madrick ought to have concentrated his eloquence upon the object lessons that lie at heart of each chapter. In that way, his thesis would glow compellingly in a moral constellation instead of blinking unsteadily through a thicket of disttracting facts. That thesis is most clearly stated in a couple of sentences near the end:

The collapse was the product of decisions by individuals, set upon making fortunes and becoming kings of the mountain, not an inevitable failure of the system.

It was a handful of individual men making bad, self-serving decisions that placed the entire credit system at risk.

There was nothing wrong with “the system”; nor was the damage of this or that bubble unforeseeable. A few inordinately powerful men (Sandy Weill, Jeffrey Skilling, two name but two) screwed things up for everybody. They did so because they could, and they had the power because Washington and the press had both been drugged by the purest streams of snake oil. That anyone could listen to Alan Greenspan and continue to respect the quality of his thought is what still astonishes me. I doubt that Madrick could have the answer for that one. But if he had focused more rigorously on the abuse of permissions that would-be “kings of the mountain” wrought upon the nation’s economy, we might have a better idea of how to put an end to the cycle of euphoric greed and exorbitant bailouts that has plagued the United States since the waning of the Cold War.  


How about that earthquake! Never felt it. But when I took a taxi down to Kathleen’s office in midtown, the taxi driver said that she hadn’t felt it either. But she suggested that it had spooked the truck drivers. Since we were speeding down Park Avenue at the time, I couldn’t look around me for corroboration — trucks are by and large banned from Park — but I did notice that we were driving very fast. Considering that it was 5:30 on a weekday afternoon, Park Avenue was a speedway.

No, it’s Irene that’s on my mind. Current forecasts call for the hurricane to reach these parts, if it does bounce off of the Carolinas or even shift course entirely and aim for a more northeasterly landfall, no earlier than Sunday, which is when the weekenders (everybody but me) would be leaving anyway. But if the storm picks up speed as well as heft, it might be imprudent to bring a toddler into an evacuation zone. We shall see. I still intend to return to the beach house tomorrow. (I would have gone today, but I’m waiting for the replacement credit card, v infra.)


Later: Some day, get me to tell you the story of the replacement credit card, and how it arrived yesterday. Then again, don’t. The important thing is that I’ve got it. I’m whole again.

My Pocket Was Picked!
21 August 2011

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

At Bayshore, this morning, my back pocket was picked, and a credit card was stolen from my wallet. I had no idea that I was missing the wallet until the boy who collected fares for the bus between the ferry and the train came up to me at the station and handed it to me. I’ve never lost a wallet from my back pocket in my life, and I was flabbergasted at the idea that it could have happened. On cursory inspection, it seemed intact, and I didn’t miss the credit card until I got into town. A quick call to the credit card company informed me that the card had been used at an ATM in Jamaica, Queens — a town that I had passed through on the train from Bayshore to Penn Station. I have my ideas about how it was done, but for the moment I’m shuddering in a strange relieved shock. I’m not wondering where I lost my wallet, and I’m not wondering where I left the missing credit card. I know almost everything about what happened, and, on Wednesday, when the replacement card arrives, I’ll be whole. But still shocked, I expect.

21 August 2011

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

I’ve just returned from the beach, where I was tumbled by a wave in water too shallow for me to regain my footing. I scooted as best I could toward the sand, but Megan and a nice young father had to help me to my feet. Kathleen was terrified that I’d broken my neck, and Will, in his father’s arms, was just plain terrified.  What a dope I was! I was never in serious danger, not for a second, but I certainly appeared to be in distress, and now I’m exhausted. I ought to have been a better judge of the surf.

From The Power Broker, I’ve moved back to Jeff Madrick’s The Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present. It’s not quite as depressing as Robert Caro’s book, possibly because so much of the material is in the air, as it were — the public conversation about the “financialization” of American business would be hard to ignore, if I wanted to. But both books have set me to thinking even more arduously than I usually do about the problem of regulation — why it so often fails. It’s clear that a big part of the problem is the word itself, “regulation.” Like so many words in common parlance, it has taken on an insidious mechanical connotation. For example: “He couldn’t take the pressure anymore; no wonder he blew up!” We may no longer be conscious that this figure of speech derives from the behavior of faulty steam boilers two hundred years ago and more, but we persist in thinking of many human processes as if they were mechanical — dependably mindless. Another example: A Machine That Would Go of Itself, the title of Michael Kammen’s insightful 1986 book about the American Constitution. No constitution could be a machine (much less one that “would go of itself”), because the men and women whose actions realize its force in the real world would not be machines.

Machines invariably do the same thing with whatever power they’re given. Men and women invariably don’t. When we speak of “regulation,” we’re dreaming of “systems” that could be “put in place” to “maintain” public “order.” In Europe, where the Frankish passion for uniformity has been imprinted on the bureaucracy of the European Union, the size of almost everything has been prescribed down to the last millimeter by fiat. Americans like to think that we’re more flexible, but by giving our regulators greater discretion we also give them more power, and it is power, above all things, that needs to be regulated. Who regulates the regulators?

Across the table, our laptops back to back, Kathleen is working on a document. She worked all through yesterday afternoon as well. In a well-regulated working world, big deals would not simmer during August. Just the sun.   

20 August 2011

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

Kathleen thought that she was going to miss the 8:10 ferry. The 6:27 out of Penn Station was detained at Jamaica because of  “signal problems,” which in the LIRR’s low Stalinist manner were persistently announced but never explained. I was all the more glad, then, that I’d decided not to wait dinner for her arrival. In fact, we were just finishing up when she called to say that she might have to take the 9:00.

Well, some of us were finishing up. Others hadn’t eaten — “others” being the parents of a little boy who has been having a lot of excellent fun out here on Fire Island, swimming, running, climbing onto chairs; checking out the screen doors to see if, maybe, for once, they’ll open to his touch; and religiously following his new diet of milk and french fries. More fun, alas, than his developing constitution can handle, given — I forgot to mention this — his disinclination, what with all the fun on offer, to take naps. The meltdown began while I was setting the table, and it had not entirely subsided when Kathleen called again, to say that she had indeed made the 8:10 — as happens on weekends, the boat had been held for the train — and I scooted off with the wagon to meet her.

It was very still, and slightly humid, not our best weather, when I walked to Ocean Beach.  Distant flashes of sheet lightning lit up the sky in the west, but the air barely moved. When I reached the dock, I spotted the tiny constellation of gliding lights that I knew to be the Fire Island Belle (or its sister, the Queen) and thought how good it was going to be to see Kathleen. Maybe she would want to have a quick bite in the town. I would give The bars were overflowing with young people, but Rachel’s was almost empty, and that’s where we went, straight from the ferry; Kathleen did indeed want a quick bite in town. The moment we took our seats, the hanging baskets of plants in the window begin to sway in a gusting wind that put me in mind, not entirely unhappily, of Twister. We were sure that we’d be soaked in the impending storm. But the storm impended elsewhere. The breeze kept up, but the rain never came. When Kathleen had finished her crab cakes, and the orders of buffalo wings that I’d ordered in lieu of dinner for me were packed up (we’ll find out tonight how well they kept), we headed home in the dark, we were surprised by the nightscape of the band of National Seashore that separates Robbins Rest from Ocean Beach: it looked like snow. The sand almost glowed white, and the tops of the reeds and the scrub seemed vaguely phosphorescent. We trudged along thinking that we were ridiculously underdressed; we ought to be wearing boots and parkas!

As we neared the house, we listened for Will but did not hear him. Coming up the ramp, we heard the amiable chatter of a group of adults, but no child, sobbing or otherwise. Will had finally gone to sleep, and his parents, grandparents, and great-uncle were gabbing in the living room. We were happy to join them. I would occasionally tell Kevin to keep his voice down, and Kathleen would tell me to keep my voice down. We didn’t stay up long. We had all shared Will’s busy day of doing nothing at the beach.

19 August 2011

Friday, August 19th, 2011


About two minutes before Megan’s father-in-law pulled up in front of the house, shortly ahead of the rest of the party, I closed The Power Broker. Everyone who had seen me plowing through the 1162-page text had been kidding me, “What are you going to do when you finish it?”, and now I felt the edge of the situation. What, indeed? Never mind what I’ll read next. What will I think, and how will I feed the thoughts aroused by Robert Caro’s ultimately baroque portrait of a man who was far more singular and even more powerful than I ever imagined. One of the pebbles in my ruminative shoe is the fact that Robert Moses was 39 years old when he attained his first salary-paying job; no wonder he held on to power in his eighties! Something else: Moses was still very much alive in 1975, when The Power Broker appeared. (He would live until 1981.) Having, by then, lost just about every shred of that power, he was now insulted (I use the word in its medical sense) by an impassioned compendium of his crimes against humanity, compiled with Dickensian outrage. I am not going to say that I feel sorry for the man. But his bewilderment — there must have been much of that, because, like anyone who becomes addicted to and intoxicated by arrogance, he seems always to have been convinced that he was doing the right thing — is sad and embarrassing. So is the humiliation. It was bad enough that influential people had stopped consulting him; now they were judging him.

But, as I say, I was not left with these thoughts for long. Mike was no sooner sipping a Corona and chatting with Kevin than Fran arrived with Megan and Will. I set out to buy a few boxes of wine, an errand that I’d deliberately postponed until after the O’Neills’ arrival in case there was something else that was needed from the town (there wasn’t). When I got back, I started cooking dinner. And so on and so forth. A storm approached as we sat at the table, and later, when the dishes were all washed and the men were enjoying a nightcap on the front portch, it put on quite a good show, with several flavors of lightning, plenty of thunder, and buckets of racketing rain. The new day has dawned mild and fair. And I can’t give Robert Moses much thought until I take care of the propane problem. It seems that we’ve run out.

“Dickensian” — not a word that I use often. I don’t like Dickens. He overdoes the scenery and underdoes the psychology. I have never found his fiction to be truly adult. But guess what — I’m reading Dickens next. I’m re-reading the first real novel that I ever read, A Tale of Two Cities. It came loaded on my new smartphone, and I thought, “Why not?” I plan to put all of Jane Austen and most of Henry James on the phone, so that I never have to carry just-in-case reading material again, but, just as Fire Island was the right place for reading about Robert Moses (he wanted to pave it with a highway), so a beach house in August is the right place for revisiting a novel that filled me with an abiding dread of civil war in general and of jacquerie in particular.

Everyone’s up, and we’re glad to have a toaster oven, a coffee-maker, and (for the time being, anyway) hot water. At eight we phone the landlord.  

17 August 2011

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Sunday may have been poundingly wet, Monday morning miserable and Tuesday morning grim, but Monday afternoon was sunny and fair, and Tuesday afternoon was nothing less than glorious. At about four, I walked toward the sun for twenty-five minutes, then I turned around, and it took half an hour to get back where I came from. The waves were breaking a little farther out than on Monday, and when one of them rumbled my footing a bit, I decided that I had better get out while I could. (I used to love being tossed in the surf, but now it’s quite terrifying.) Kevin and I went into town for an early dinner, and this was our view (above).

After dinner, I received a note from Ray Soleil describing some work that he had done for us at the apartment. He got through the worst of a big, messy project (repainting the balcony door, which had been so neglected over the years that paint was falling off in big chips that Will happened to find interesting), and I wrote back to congratulate him. Shortly thereafter, a tumbler fell. I remembered Kathleen’s telling me that she had left her cell phone at home (she was at the office at the time). So I couldn’t alert her, in the conventional way, to the possibility that Ray might have locked the apartment door a bit differently. (He hadn’t, of course, but I couldn’t confirm this.) My first thought was to have someone at the restaurant where I knew she was having dinner slip her a note, but this sounded fussy. After many other less satisfactory thoughts, however, that’s exactly what I did, only the headwaiter interrupted my tale and summoned Kathleen to the telephone. She was frightened, of course, to hear that her husband was calling — had something happened to her brother? — but when she found out the reason for my call, she was grateful as well as relieved. 

In the old days, of course, I’d have called the doormen at our apartment building, and one of them would have tipped her off when she came in; but, under new management, you can’t do that anymore. The headwaiter must have thought that we live in a tree.

16 August 2011

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

It got very wet out here on Sunday. As recently as Monday night, when we came upon this bit of unavoidable pavement, we found every bit of it underwater. (I was surprised to find how far the water had receded in eighteen hours.) More surprisingly, the walks on the shop front in Ocean View were also under water. But as it was only a Monday night — following a dismal, stormy Sunday — there weren’t many people around to complain. The only downside for us has been that Megan and Will have been stuck in town. The prospect of traveling alone (with a toddler) on the LIRR is not encouraging. Last night, Kathleen tried to catch the 8:03 from Bay Shore. But the 8:03 was interrupted by a collision, with some tomfool pedestrian walking the tracks, of all things. So Kathleen took a taxi to Babylon, where she caught a train right away. But still!

Now I know something of what the British must have felt in 1944: we’re winning, but we’re too tired to rejoice. I’ve got about 250 pages of The Power Broker to read. This morning, I completed the three chapters that Robert Caro devotes to the building of the Cross-Bronx Expressway. It was harrowing stuff, and I was unable to shake the narrative’s powerful correspondence, never made explicit by the author, to the unfolding of the Holocaust — a linkage far from weakened by the fact that the East Tremont residents who were needlessly displaced by Robert Moses’s route (apparently designed to save a private bus terminal) were, for the most part, striving Jews who had come up in the world, just a bit, from the Lower East Side, whose grandparents had been harrassed by the Tsar and whose cousins had perished in the camps.

The comparison might strike some as grotesque. The residents of East Tremont were not, after all, eliminated (although, as a viable neighborhood, East Tremont itself certainly was). At the time, manyNew Yorkers would have agreed (and in fact did agree!) with Moses’s insistence that “succeeding generations would be grateful.” No student of history can read such a statement without a personal qualm, for so many of the evils that we read about in history books have lost their bite, as contexts and priorities and even modes of consciousness have altered over time. As a species, we take the world as we find it; our passion for justice, in contrast, is eccentric at best. But Caro’s account makes it clear that people were lied to and betrayed by officials up and down the city’s power pole, all of them either bent to the will of Robert Moses or silenced by superiors who were. Up to the moment that the East Tremonters found new homes that they could afford to rent, their steps paralleled the doomed Jews’ of Eastern Europe. Even assuming that improved mass transit one day makes the Cross-Bronx Expressway a pleasure to drive, no one will ever have reason to be grateful for Moses’s gutting of a lively and vital neighborhood when an obviously less destructive route lay a few blocks to the south.

What’s depressing about the material that follows the Cross-Bronx saga is that the issues of highway saturation that Caro discusses in his 1975 text remain largely unaddressed today. Yes, construction continues on the Second Avenue subway, but can we believe that it will really be running in 2017? The problem is that the drivers of the metropolitan area have been infected by Moses’s mania for private cars (he may never have driven one himself, but he was one of the first to appreciate the allure of the automobile as a moving bubble of autonomous privacy, which remains the most toxic component of the automotive narcotic). And of course the subways still don’t go to many of the parts of town that were developed in response to Moses’s roads. In the end — I’m anticipating; I haven’t finished the book yet — Robert Moses left New York in worse shape than he found it. But that’s by the way. It’s the failures of democratic process that put autocratic, unchallengeable power in his hands that arouses pity and despair. 

13 August 2011

Saturday, August 13th, 2011

When I got back to the house, after seeing Megan and Will off on the ferry, I sat down and resumed reading The Power Broker. Every now and then, I’d get up for one reason or another — to refill my mug of tea; to move the laundry through its various cycles (including the manual ones of folding it and putting it where it belongs; why isn’t there a machine for that?); to fix myself a sandwich for lunch or, later, a snack of cheese and crackers — but I always came back to the book, andas the hours crept by, I felt increasingly unhappy about being alone. At one point, I wrote a few letters, and that cheered me up, but my thoughts were too dispersed to allow anything more ambitious. I had wanted to make a pasta sauce, but now that there were no immediate mouths to feed, the kitchen was the last place I wanted to be. And so, as the long and glorious afternoon wore on, I sank into a funk that I can only label “Mosesitis.”

And I can only describe Mosesitis as grand opera without the tunes. The fantastic tensions of Robert Moses’s career — why anyone needs to read “fantasy” when there are such tales as these — are never transmuted by the grammar of music into a harmony that, even if it doesn’t render the dark contradictions of human life comprehensible, nevertheless comprehends them. What’s needed is a Wagnerian motif, like the ineffably powerful hook that connotes the fatal (but not fatal!) potion in Tristan und Isolde, a run of notes that reminds us where we are, every time the blackening hero of this astronomically ongoing story discovers even nastier means to justify ever more dubious ends. The handsome but arrogant idealist at the outset is transformed into a monster addicted to power, Dorian-Gray-like, right before our eyes. And the transformation refuses to stop. Just when you think that Robert Moses can’t possibly invent a new way of gratifying his manias, he surprises you with a genius that it would be easier to dismiss as evil, if only the public works that Moses left behind were not so familiarly beautiful or, when not that, at least problematically convenient.

A long part of what seems to be the book’s longest chapter is devoted to the construction of Riverside Park and the Henry Hudson Parkway. At its lower end, the parkway runs between the park and the river, but at its northern end it cuts through the surprisingly wild terrain of Fort Tryon and Inwood Parks. For one or two summers, I rode the parkway every morning and every evening, hitching a ride to my summer job on Wall Street in my father’s car. I’d have preferred to take the train, but my father had given up on trains. He preferred to sit in air-conditioned comfort and listen to Frank Sinatra on WNEW — for a spell, Sinatra and Mia Farrow were shacked up on a sailboat anchored just off the parkway. He didn’t mind the inexorability with which, on the homeward drive, traffic slowed to a crawl at 34th Street and didn’t open up again until past the exits for the George Washington Bridge. I hated it, but there was a reward: when we could drive fast again, it was beneath the trees of the northern end of the parkway, which, no matter how badly it actually degraded the environment, gave the illusion of a pristine landscape. As I turned the pages of The Power Broker, I saw the summer sun dappling the trees as Dad’s car sped beneath them, and I was overcome by the recollection of my father’s easy generosity (even if it was motivated by innocent vanity). The complicating overlay of these distilled memories made it impossible not to feel gratitude for the single-mindedness of Robert Caro’s anti-hero, whom a friend of mine calls “that horrible man.”

Boy, was I ever glad when, at the last light of dusk, Kathleen walked off the ferry and into my arms! That was simple.

A Shifting Cast
12 August 2011

Friday, August 12th, 2011

Megan and Will return to town this morning; this evening, Kathleen and her brother come out. I have no ambitions whatsoever for the day that I’ll have to myself. No great thoughts will be pursued; no foreign languages drilled; no Proust read (probably). I’ll wear my eyes out on The Power Broker, which piles wonder on top of wonder. I thought I’d heard everything, but apparently not: did you know that Robert Moses ran for governor of New York in 1934, and made a complete hash of his campaign, insulting almost everyone who might have supported him, and feeling insulted by those who couldn’t support him because he was running on the wrong ticket? And how did he crawl out of this abyss? With an assist from some overreaching by his archenemy in the White House, none other than FDR. Robert Caro’s study beggars the imagination.

Getting Vacant
9 August 2011

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

To bed shortly past ten, up before seven — a good start; it were better were today not the eleventh of our allotted month. So much for numbers. The days pass quickly, because nothing happens. Megan took Will for a swim in the bay yesterday afternoon, and I thought to ask her to check on the milk supply before she left, but never got round to mentioning it. Will has been drinking a lot of milk — half a gallon a day, it almost seems — and, sure enough, we were almost out. So when Megan got back from the beach, I set out for the market, and I got there quickly, it seemed, even though I wasn’t hurrying. I was back at the house in forty minutes. (More numbers and more.)

I promised Megan that I would join her and Will for the bayside swim this afternoon. She acquired a canopied float for Will that clearly requires the cooperation of two adults. To get an idea of what it looked like, she blew half of it up yesterday. When she realized that this had given Will more than an idea of what it looked like, she said, “Well, that was a really bad idea.” Blowing it up, that is. Will wanted to get into it right now, but of course it didn’t function very well on dry land, or even in the little wading pool on the back porch.

Other than that, we don’t have any plans. I’d like to clean out the refrigerator — a task that lingers in postponement — just to see what’s in there. The other night, I made the composed salad that I was talking about, and that cleared out quite a bit of wrappery and baggery. Our cuisine has been very simple. The market sells chicken parts, boneless rib steaks, hot and sweet sausages, and other meat items that don’t tempt me. There is always plenty of good, fresh corn, and plump beefsteak tomatoes. For lunch, I’m happy with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Breakfast is a slice of whichever Entenman’s coffee cake is on hand. I am thinking of making a tomato sauce for this evening’s dinner.

Every free moment will go to reading The Power Broker. It just doesn’t let up! Caro follows a suite of chapters about the darkening of Robert Moses’ character circa 1930 — “What a shitty guy!” you cry out on every other page — with “New York City Before Robert Moses,” a portrait of municipal dysfunction so sharply etched that you can’t believe that the place is still inhabited. And you know that only Robert Moses, deploying his high-handed, virulently anti-democratic, and astonishingly effective tactics will cleanse the Augean stable (and with just about as much water, too). So you find yourself rooting for the bad guy. I’m almost looking forward to reading about the later years of Moses’s career, when his works were as odious as he was. Then there will be no rooting, not for him.

Last night, it was so cool that I had to pull over a sheet. Every day of beautiful weather makes this quiet retreat a perfect gift unto itself.

10 August 2011

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

It is beautfully cool today. It’s not going to last, but I’m developing an extra set of gills just to take it all in. 

One of us is leaving today, and we have to meet an early ferry. More anon.

Anon: my wonderful new routine hit a pothole last night, in the form of sitting up late and talking and not just talking but sipping Jim Beam in tiny, too many sips.

And the cool has lasted. It’s a glorious day!

9 August 2011

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Today already feels like the first normal day. I was up before eight — I’ll be rising earlier and earlier, I hope — and when I gathered up my reading glasses, my new phone, my water bottle, and my book, to carry to the front of the house where I’d be spending a few hours, I thought to bring my laptop as well, because it is now and (as a rule) only now that I am going to be connected — not on and off throughout the day. I set my stuff down on the table and arranged it while the water boiled; by the time the tea was steeping, I had downloaded yesterday’s photographs, chosen the ones to save for use here or at Facebook, run them through PhotoShop, and even (I think) posted to an album at the social network. Then I opened WordPress and got started here. Now I can close PhotoShop and Zoombrowser, write something brief here, and decide what, if anything, I want to do next.

When everyone’s up and out of bed, I’ll put on some music and start in on the kitchen. Until today, we’ve been camping out (which completely lacks the rigor of genuine camping) — piling up stuff here and there, stocking the pantry and then forgetting what we’ve got, and letting the refrigerator descend into unholy chaos. When I sort it all out, I’m going to set aside the ingredients for a composed salad, or a dinner salad composed of leftovers. I’m going to turn the ripe avocado into guacamole. And then we’re all going to sweep.

Megan, I believe, plans to take us out to lunch in town. A nice treat! I have a short shopping list, but as it includes a box of wine, I’ll be happy to have the wheelbarrow.

I brought a few books out, not as many as you might think. A recently reissued Patricia Highsmith. The Hans Keilson novel that I didn’t read. Paul Taylor’s autobiography — as charmingly idiosyncratic as his dances, but proof that he took up the right line of work. I forget what else. I didn’t have to give my choices much thought, because I planned a bedrock of Caro and Proust. I have all of A la recherche du temps perdu, the Pléiades’ dictionary-thick paperback, and, even thicker, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. This even thicker book is what I’ve been reading with not just interest but fascination. Everyone who has ever talked to me about having read the book has praised it to the skies, but I’ve allowed myself to be put off by the backroom-politics subject-matter and the unattractive subject. But I thought that there couldn’t be a better time to read this highly-regarded 1975 Pulitzer Prize winner than a month spent on a sandbar that Moses wanted to pave into an expressway to the Hamptons. It turns out (duh) that Caro has figured out how to charge his material with real, shoot-’em-up excitement. His dogged pursuit of the details of key transactions, negotiations, and, for the most part, underhanded maneuvers is so judicious that thebook reads like a crime novel’s dénouement. And, yes — the location gives the story some extra juice.

I haven’t started in on (resumed) reading Proust yet. I’ve been saving him for quiet afternoons that have, so far, proven to be elusive. He’ll be proof that the new normal has settled in.

What’s this? For forty over an hour I’ve been sitting in front of a sliding glass door without realizing that someone closed it last night before going to bed. That’s proof of something! And now, I hear the plaints of a little boy who, if you ask me, has been uncomfortably uncertain over the past day or two about whether he’ll be going home soon or whether he lives in a new house.

8 August 2011

Monday, August 8th, 2011

The surf was so angry yesterday that a lifeguard, who appeared out of nowhere (there are lifeguards?), urged us not to go in deeper than our knees. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her keep us under surveillance as we drifted further than we ought to, and then retracted to higher ground. No one was tempted to disobey the order. There was nothing inviting about the thundering breakers, and what undertow we could feel against our legs made it very clear that trying to get out of the water, once we were really in it, would be taxing at best, and dangerous at best, too.

At a quarter to seven, those of us who were staying on kissed those who were leaving goodbye; offsetting the melacholy of the occasion, we were two trios (not counting Will) — crowds, as the saying has it, when crowds were needed. When our simple dinner was just about through, the thunder passed from the sea to the sky, and the heavens let loose a deluge that made an enormous racket on the screened porch’s corrugated roof.

5 August 2011

Friday, August 5th, 2011

There is too much to say for so calm an hour. I hear murmurs from other houses, and, from behind me, one of Brahms’sstring quartets — also a murmur. The surf pounds out its dull, arrhythmic roar. The occasional light plane — the occasional helicopter in the evening — and, every once in a great while, an airliner coming in from Europe. It is so quiet that the sunlight on the pines seems to hum.

I’d have to be Oblomov himself to claim that I have a busy day ahead of me. But that I have anything at all to do seems a bit taxatious. What it comes down to is devising a supper that will be more or less ready to eat when we all get back from the ferry. I wouldn’t miss greeting the family for the world; plus, I have a stroller for Will. The stroller proved itself to be fairly useless on the sandy stretch between Ocean Beach and Robbins Rest; carrying a bag containing little more than a feather pillow, it bogged down several times and finally had to be carried. But for the much longer walk from the edge of Ocean Beach to the ferry, it will come in handy, especially as Will will have had a very long day by the time he sets foot on Fire Island for the first time. (It will also be a first time for everyone else in the party except for Megan and Kathleen.)

Meeting the ferry means that I won’t be cooking while everyone else is approaching the house. I’ll have to have gotten most things to an advanced point, and experienced cooks will know that there are few problems as intractable as bringing a menu close to the point of completion in such a way that, an hour or so later, five minutes of last-minute stirrings and whatever kitchen voodoo is working that day are all that it takes to produce a delicious, fresh-tasting meal. The dishes that work best under such constraints — stews, for the most part — are not what one wants to be eating in August.

Although it is deliciously cool and breezy right now. I ought to go the store and do my shopping now, but I’d much rather read The Power Broker. Let me sound really dumb and say, “It’s really good!” Duh. It was really good thirty-odd years ago, when Kathleen started out in municipal bonds at Hawkins, and it was more or less assumed that everyone read Robert Caro’s study of the grand vizier of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, for which the firm wrote bond indentures. (She has yet to read it.) I’m finding it the perfect beach book, as endless as the long, monotonous days but every bit as sparkly with glittering detail.

And there’s my new phone to play with. I’ve been putting off upgrading to a smartphone for ages. I hated my last phone, which was only semi-smart; I never liked the way it worked and in fact I thought that it didn’t work. (A lot of the “not working” was AT & T’s fault, not the phone’s.) When, on Tuesday morning, the old phone’s screen flickered and went dark, it never occurred to me that a simple reboot would restore it; for one thing, I had no idea where the battery was. I was embarrassed when the salesman at the phone store told me that he’d got it working, and was therefore able to transfer all my contacts to the new Inspire phone that I had by that time purchased. Well, as I say, I’d been putting it off. Learning how to use a new phone is another activity that’s perfectly suited to oceanside living. Already I’ve sent the phone askew several times, by accidently pressing buttons or flipping switches (or whatever), and setting things to rights has required crash courses in the utter basics. 

But — how sweet it is — I have nothing better to do.