Sunday, July 1, 2012
I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a thing about process — not so much what I do but more the way I do it. Bet that sounds odd coming from a guy with a short fuse and bad attitude; especially since I don’t think of my cases as police procedurals. I rely far too much on hunches and instinct, and also harbor an unhealthy disregard for anyone’s rules but my own. That blatant disregard for authority — and an occasional leap into the abyss — cost me my job as a detective with the NYPD, so I’m not known for my methods any more than I am for my patience. I’m very much a bottom-line kind of guy.
Through it all, though, it’s still about process. Process, in fact, is what has prevented me from making more entries in this journal; I’ve been struggling to keep my head straight — and still attached to my shoulders — in a bizarre case boasting a rising body count, an ancient blood curse and one of the most dangerous Femme Fatales this side of our Lady From Shanghai, Elsa Bannister. I’ve had my hands full, in more ways than one, and haven’t had much time for sidebars.
So by process I mean my general approach to what I do. When I begin a case, for example, I use the cork board panels in my study to literally throw shit on a wall. There’s no order, no angles, no presumptions, no nothing: just the facts, ma’am, as Joe Friday of Dragnet might say; except since I have doubts about our ability to firmly establish facts of any kind its interpretations or quirky details that I’m really after. Everything gets pinned to the wall — photos, character profiles, insurance policies, riders and inventories, newspaper clippings, downloads pulled out of the ether, sticky notes inscribed with stickier questions or scraps of paper with hunches scribbled under coffee stains — all pieces to a giant jigsaw puzzle that I’m supposed to fit together. What am I looking for? A point of entry into the case, the one sliver of evidence, a suspicion — yes, even a hunch—that quantifies and illuminates all the others.
Observers might note that my process is curiously similar to that of my creator’s, because it is. He’s been prone to use cork boards to stitch my literal storyboards together, and he struggles to find that point-of-entry into his writing the same way I do my cases. Author-dearest doesn’t take ‘write what you know’ all that seriously, but he doesn’t totally disregard it, either.
Solving a case—or writing a story—isn’t as easy as sometimes advertised. Facts and/or interpretations can often fit together in disparate ways, and in my case there are usually one or more characters fiercely determined to obscure what’s really going on because, for them, it’s very much a zero-sum game. For me to win they have to lose. To make matters worse, I’m usually playing with only 51 cards in the deck — not me, mind you, I’m playing with far fewer than that — but there’s usually some vital detail or innocuous clue either withheld or misrepresented that lures me down dark alleys and dead ends.
That probably explains why my navigator and back seat driver, author-dearest, is the one armed with GPS. He usually knows where I’m going before I get there. He says it’s because he has to make sure that all the pieces fit together and make sense — no small feat considering the convoluted crap I step in. Being as hardheaded as I am hardnosed I don’t have much use for road maps, but just because I have broad shoulders and wear the chip on mine better than author-dearest does the one on his doesn’t mean I’m ungrateful.
I find it touching that someone has my back, makes sure loose ends aren’t left dangling and mitigates the damage when I screw up—which pretty much is all the time. I try to return the favor whenever possible, but that could prompt the question of exactly who’s writing who?
Talk about your mysteries…
Sunday, May 6, 2012
I’m feeling cocky and like my old self again now that I’m out of the box I was being painted into against my better judgment. Rumors of my premature demise at the hands of either Mexican drug cartels or a misguided author were indeed exaggerated. I’m still standing and taking on all comers. Better bring you’re A-game if you expect to become something other than the next head on my trophy wall.
Doubtless the notion of trophies on a wall now comes to mind because there’s a killer who collects them — like notches on a gun — from his victims in my new case. That’s all blood under the bridge, so to speak, until that past intrudes upon the present and the killer is forced to kill again. I hate it when that happens, and I find it happens a lot. The past toys with us, pretends its safely entombed, like Jurassic amber, only to abruptly crack open, unasked and uninvited, to unleash Pandora's worst ills on our world. In fact, it's the way the past weighs upon and warps the present and corrupts the future that has emerged as the unifying theme of my new adventure.
It’s a nasty idea — an active and insidious past — that undermines all our pretensions about being free in our self-absorbed here and now. Such notions have always been bullshit, of course; the pixie-dust lies we sprinkle over our eyes to lull ourselves to sleep every night. I’ve been known to have a dark, even jaded outlook on things, and so plead guilty to thinking the past is built more on fear and pain than it is on well-planned successes. There is something innately poisonous about the past, something oppressive and tyrannical; the long arm of a shadow that grabs us from behind just as we think we're breaking away, or the noxious, sweet-smelling memory that jumps out of the hall closet to prick us to death with the sharp needles of last year’s Christmas tree.
The past isn’t benign any more than it is static; it’s alive and as fluid as quicksilver. It’s also the playground where our private demons nibble at our fingers and toes until growing bold enough to devour us whole. Let’s be real: we’ve all done things in our pasts we hope have been forgiven, but forgetting them is a whole different thing. Being a fatally-flawed fictional character I can neither forgive nor forget, but hopefully you’re a kinder, gentler soul and have managed to perfect the art of at least one of these dubious virtues.
Tossing proverbial shit in the game is the fact that my latest antagonists aren’t any better at forgiving/forgetting than I am. If anything, they’re worse; hard cases imprisoned by a past they can’t trick and can't out distance no matter how fast they run. They’ve learned, as have I, that the past never truly goes away; it’s always just a sound, a touch, a scent away; ready to curl back and splatter us like a glob of spit in the wind. When it’s really pissed-off the past can roll back on us with the vengeance of a runaway freight train or, better yet, the relentless resolve of a curse.
There’s one of those in my new case, too — a curse — more like Tut’s than Dain’s in this instance because it involves something — numerous things, really — stolen in the past; the bill for which has finally come due. That’s what curses are, when you think about it, overdue bills, and getting them paid can be messy.
Hence the title, “Blood Rituals”, and it seems I’m not the only collector tracking down deadbeats. Someone is busy taking their heads and hearts faster than I can their names.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
Every once in a while this private dick is saved from a fate worse than death — a bad plot — through no doings of his own, and I’m happy to report this is one of those instances where common sense and second thoughts have pulled my proverbial chestnuts from the fire.
That’s not always the case with us fictional characters. Too often we’re at the will and whim of authors who patently disregard the better angels of their instincts and spit together the most absurd crock of swill likely to be found east of the Hudson River. Admittedly much of that brine comes from the cyberworld of badly edited e-Books and over-FX’d Hollywood cinema, but being a character in an overwrought and empty tale is akin to being a deckhand on the Titanic. You know the sucker’s going down and there’s not a damned thing you can do but go down with it.
So I’m pleased to report that author dearest has come to his senses and saved me from a stillborn story line; it’s just taken him a bit longer than usual to determine which end is up. The last several months have been brutal. First he sends me to sip syrupy drinks under the palm trees of a resort on the Gulf Coast of Mexico waiting for an improbable case to enshroud me and then he scuttles the first half of the story and abruptly yanks me back to New York to pick up the pieces. Not surprisingly for him, however, he then promptly proceeds to lose both himself and yours truly in our home town as he clings to the idea of using the ever-deteriorating crisis south of the border and the absurdity of our so-called ‘war-on-drugs’ as some sort of subplot in my next case.
That might be a good idea if your name is Tom Clancy, but his isn’t anymore than mine is Jack Ryan. Now, I can see where it’s easy to be seduced by the bright and sparkly marketplace, but for characters like me it’s always more important to stay grounded and allow yourself room enough to become who you are. I suppose that’s easy for me to say. I don’t mind obscurity. I’m conjured up out of the ether and return there after you read the final chapter to my latest saga. I can bark all I want about the high mortgage on my brownstone, the inflation impacting my favorite single malts and how much Nicole’s freshman year in college is costing me, but we both know that’s bullshit because it’s all make believe—like everything else about me. Author dearest, however, does suffer from corporeal existence in a so-called ‘real world’ that’s becoming more and more absurd all the time, so every now and again I turn a blind private eye to this penchant for interjecting commerce into this mutual venture of ours. Then too, I think I’ve mentioned that he harbors visions of artistic grandeur on occasion, and that sometimes leads him places neither he nor I should tread.
Fortunately, the guy who writes me isn’t a complete idiot, no matter how well he acts the part at times, and he usually manages to correct his artistic missteps before they plunge us, headlong, into the abyss. Sometimes he listens to my misgivings about a project, sometimes he sees the light all by his lonesome, and sometimes he has the wisdom to listen to the good counsel of others. In this particular instance it took all three, especially the latter, to make him see the error of his ways.
Whatever works is my motto! And so the fix is in. I just stepped out of the lab author dearest calls his studio, where he stitches me and my cases together like Frankenstein did his monster, to grab a cigarette and spread the news, Colin Clive like, that “I’m alive!” We’ll see just where that gets me when I go back inside.
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
I usually avoid reunions with old flames like I do visits to the dentist, so it’s with a special sense of dread that while gleaning the plot outline for my next case I found myself swapping pleasantries and a good deal more with a former lover. You can’t blame the guy who writes me much for hatching the idea. Carmen always was irresistible; a femme fatale worthy of Hammer, Hammett or Chandler: seductive, vulnerable and dangerous — just not necessarily in that order. Carmen was like one of those party poppers, only made with real dynamite: be sure to run for cover once you pull her string. I damn near didn’t survive my first go-round with her, so please allow me my misgivings about this decision to regurgitate her now up out of my past.
I met Carmen on the first case I was assigned to after my suspension lifted for having sent Harvey Krieger to the hospital — the first time. I was still on the force at the time, and my father, also a detective, had recently been ‘accidentally’ shot by another cop — Krieger — while working undercover. You might recall that Harvey liked to shoot things first and find reasons for them to be dead later. Putting my father in a wheelchair for the rest of his life was a form of recreation to Krieger. I took exception when Internal Affairs cleared him of any wrong doing in the shooting and told him so one night after work. I didn’t much care for the lack of remorse in his response, and sent him to the emergency room with a fractured skull, broken jaw and several broken ribs. Guess Carmen isn’t the only one with dynamite in her DNA.
Anyway, Captain Vega wanted to ease me back into action when my suspension lifted, and told me to help Stan Cummings on a stalker case he’d been working. It seemed innocuous enough to keep me out of sight and out of trouble. An assistant curator at a local museum had attracted a co-worker’s attentions. When flowers and candy didn’t work the co-worker sent her twisted love letters penned in blood. The museum sent him packing, but that just gave him more time on his idle hands and a score to settle. A court order didn’t help, and he continued to stalk her round the clock in an obvious attempt to wear her down.
From the looks of her, he was succeeding. Carmen was a mess when I first saw her, sitting in ‘Zo’s office; trembling like a wet kitten, her mascara running over the dark bags under her eyes from lack of sleep. She nervously gnawed her fingers bloody as she pleaded for help and protection. She looked up at us with lost puppy-dog eyes as Vega explained there was little they could do until the guy actually made his move. She mumbled something to the effect she could be dead by then, but ‘Zo promised her they wouldn’t let that happen. He volunteered me to make sure she got home safely, and said he’d have squad cars prowl her neighborhood to scare the creep off. He probably didn’t believe that part any more than I did, but it seemed to calm Carmen down.
Poor ‘Zo should have saved himself the bother about keeping me out of trouble. Whether I’m looking for it or not, it seems to find me just the same. Little did I know that trouble was also extremely fond of Carmen; things just seemed to happen to her in ways no one — she least of all — could understand or explain. She reminded me of the women in classic screwball comedies who invariably got embroiled in the most bizarre kinds of trouble through no apparent fault of their own. They seemed to thrive on chaos. Damsels in perpetual distress one could call them, only with Carmen it wasn’t all harmless slapstick. There was a darker, desperate side to Carmen’s entanglements that inexorably drew you ever closer to the flame without your realizing just how much danger you were really in.
Which I hope explains why I’m a bit skittish about the idea of her stepping back into my life. Men, like moths, need to know their limitations when playing with fire. Carmen’s the kind of woman who stretches you to yours. The neon signs inside your head signal STOP! CAUTION! but you ignore them and follow the pointing of your dick instead as if it were a reliable compass.
That’s usually the problem with damsels in distress; you’re fucked if you help them, and you’re fucked if you don’t. Either way you begin to care. You construe their fear and vulnerability for weakness, not realizing until it’s too late that with women like Carmen the perception of helplessness is the scent that lures you in. How did Brigid O’Shaughnessy put it? “Be generous, Mr. Spade….You’re strong, you’re resourceful, you’re brave. You can spare me some of that strength and resourcefulness and courage, surely.”
That’s part of danger with femme fatales: they make the poor slob believe he’s better than he really is, make you believe you really can survive the shit they’re about to throw you into. All the same, the warning of Noah Cross from Chinatown begins to murmur in your ear: “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.” One thing invariably leads to another, and before you know better you’re sleeping with dynamite dressed in lace pants and doing something stupid. Then you’re really fucked, because once you check into that particular motel there’s no checking out and the linen never washes clean; you’ve crossed the line somewhere in your efforts to help her and now it’s your ass, not hers, that’s in the fryer.
Doesn’t author-dearest see where messing with a woman like Carmen will lead? Bizet didn’t know the half of it. I’ve been there, done that, and prefer not to descend into that netherworld again. I was lucky to escape in one piece the last time.
I don’t expect that will make much difference, though. The guy at the wheel seems as hooked on Carmen as I was. In which case, here’s hoping both of us have more than one life left in the bank.
Saturday, December 3, 2011
Those who follow my fledgling exploits know that I more than dabble in painting in between cases. Playing with paint on a canvas is more than a creative outlet for me; it’s downright therapeutic. The small studio I’ve fashioned out of a room in my Greenwich Village brownstone is where I go to mend after a hard day’s night in the field; my version of a padded cell where I can smother myself in titanium white paint as if it were gauze bandage. I spend a lot of my spare time in front of a canvas, trying to capture the images bouncing around in my head. Just getting those images to sit still long enough to depict them is one thing, and having the skill to actually paint what I see is another. Like a lot of my cases, my paintings don’t turn out as originally planned.
Kyoko would prefer I spend all my time in that studio, painting, rather than chasing insurance claims down dead end dark alleys. I’m not sure she understands how much I need the frenzied action as well as the restorative calm. Strike that. Who am I trying to kid? Kyoko understands this relationship all too well and is deathly afraid of where it’s taking me. Can’t say as I blame her. She’s afraid that each swing of the pendulum I’m riding takes me ever-further out on a limb. In ways it doesn’t matter much whether I’m swinging out with a paint brush or a revolver; either can be a deadly weapon in the right hands.
Kyoko’s afraid that one of these times I’ll fly off, out of control, and plunge head-long into an abyss from which there’s no coming back. That’s always a possibility in my line of work. I’m a danger junkie. Not just action, but danger. I like it most when my ass is on the line, when the odds are stacked against me and there’s absolutely positively no way out of the jam I’ve gotten myself into. But I’ve always been a bit thick-skulled and never have known when I’m beaten. I don’t quit, I just keep on coming; like the dumb bunny with the never-dying batteries or Arnold in Terminator mode. Sudden death is Hazard Time, when it’s your very best against mine. Two men enter, one man leaves; my personal Thunderdome.
I have no illusions about being the best at what I do. I’m a fair hand at a good many things, but being the best at anything is such a mouthful. There’s always someone smarter, faster, better or crazier than you out there, somewhere, and in gunslinger terms it’s only a matter of time before you meet them. Let’s face it: having to continually prove you’re the best is a burdensome bore.
My approach to longevity is different. It’s been said that I have a penchant for making people around me uncomfortable because I live so far out on the ledge and rarely play true to form. I’m the surprise in the box of cereal you’re eating, the wolf in sheep’s clothing you’ve invited to dinner, the bogeyman lurking under your bed. I’m never what you expect, and I can tie you up in knots trying to figure me out when I want to; its part of the game of knowing, sometimes guessing the limitations of others while never loosing sight of my own.
I’m better than good at moving people out of their comfort zone and into mine. I may have been Torquemada in a past life for all the pleasure I get out of mind-fucking my prey while gently turning the screws. I watch the needle of their tolerance creep into the red then amp up the volume and accelerate the action even further until it reaches a fever pitch that’s mad dog rabid over-the-top insane.
I know I can function under those conditions, but can they?
An eerie calm comes over me in those situations. All the chips are in the middle of the table and I should be sweating the outcome, but I never do. I’ve been ‘all-in’ all my life, piecing my patchwork quilt of a self together, so betting everything on a single hand has become old hat to me. Some think I hold some sort of death wish, but quite the opposite is true. Death and I are old drinking buddies, and as long as he and I are swapping shots at the bar I know it’s not me he’s come for. I’ve been to the edge so many times gazing into the abyss no longer fazes me. Can I help it if others shit their shorts and break out in nose bleeds when I lead them out onto the narrow cliff ledge I call home?
It’s fate accompli at that point. I know I have them when they begin to squirm and start second-guessing their judgment and their footing. They begin to hyperventilate and want to slow the action, but I ratchet-up the pressure yet again until they begin to sweat through their clothes. They start to stutter and repeat themselves; desperate to break the confusion and panic now gripping them long enough to find a safe way back down the mountain. They realize that one mistake at that fever-pitch pace and high altitude is one mistake too many, so I flat-out force the issue to its moment of truth; confident that I won’t make that fatal mistake and that the other guy will.
I’m not sure why Kyoko finds such a successful approach so objectionable. It’s almost as if she was determined to deprive me of my fun.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Every so often even a dumb gumshoe like me gets struck by lightning and listens to the voices chattering away in his head. Those who know me will attest to the fact that hearing voices is nothing new to me, and might punctuate such a revelation with a Miles Davis-sized “So What?” I could counter by cautioning that listening isn’t quite the same as hearing, but then we could go around in an endless dance of circles and get nowhere, and I’ve not been known to be a guy who wastes time.
So I’ll cut to the chase and call author dearest in for a sit-down. These dissertations of ours are taking too much time to cobble together, and I also suspect they’re taking too much time to read. I’m going by my own personal preferences, here, but I’m not fond of reading long passages of anything on a computer, let alone a smartphone, if I can avoid it. I’ve got middle-aged eyes that predate the digital age, so I can imagine it’s probably less than inviting to have to scan the thousand-word epistles me and the guy behind the curtain patch together. I’m not talking about migrating down to Nietzschean-length aphorisms — neither one of us pretend to be so profound — but less is more is as valid to writers as it is architects.
Shortening these entries would at least ease the workload. I’ve got a backlog of cases to bring up to date, and that’s only the ones I do above board. I’ve also been known to do some moonlighting now and then, off the books and in varying degrees outside the law; special ‘favors’ for close friends who need a helping hand righting a wrong or equalizing a deck stacked against them. I’ve been ‘moonlighting’ since my days on the force, and so have compiled quite a collection of adventures. I don’t charge my “Moonlight Noir” clients for my services, and have been lucky to survive more than a few of these sidebars, but for a guy who likes working in shadows and settling scores they’re just what the doctor ordered. I’ve even toyed with the idea of chronicling some of them for you, but just haven’t found the time to put pen to paper. Like so much else, the hard part’s getting started.
The guy at the wheel, meanwhile, is revising the structure of my next major case, Blood Rituals, to reflect changes in location and plot previously discussed. I like where it’s going, but since I’ve been sworn to secrecy there’s not much I can say about it except that he’s moving the mayhem to the big city, and the resulting carnage brought on by the collision of stolen artifacts, drug cartels, blood sacrifices and ancient cults, to say nothing of the return of a vintage femme fatale I used to be involved with is about to complicate the hell out of my life.
I’m a firm believer in the fact that one has to know one’s limitations, and that goes as much for writers as it does hard-boiled detectives. I’m sensing I’m about to reach mine and in self defense will need to trim these entries down to a more manageable size. We’ll see what that means, exactly. Every entry, like every one of my cases, takes on a life of its own, regardless, so let’s leave form the freedom to follow function and see where that leads.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Something’s been stabbing at my gut since my return from Mexico that I can’t seem to shake; the disquieting sensation of no longer being one with the city I love and have always called home. If I didn’t know better I’d say I was in mourning, and that’s made this particular entry especially hard to jot down.
Grappling with my emotions is not an entirely new sensation, but then neither is my growing disaffection with what I perceive has happened to New York. I’ve been resisting a nagging sense of estrangement from it for some time, now; the way one tries to ward off a cold. You know the feeling: you shrug off the aches, pains and sniffles as best you can, but if a bug’s persistent enough it can ultimately wear you down no matter how many drugs you drop in your system. All of a sudden it hits you like a brick house and you’re confined to bed fighting feverish chills and the numbing banality of daytime TV. That’s what’s happened in this instance. The sense of detachment and alienation between me and the city that has been gnawing at my toes finally widened its jaws and swallowed me whole.
Call it my F. Scott Fitzgerald moment, aptly reflected in his My Lost City; a piece he wrote in 1932 after climbing to the top of the newly-built Empire State Building. It was upon looking out at the city from its then highest structure that Fitzgerald understood what he called “the crowning error of the city,” the sobering realization “that New York was a city after all and not a universe”, a realization that caused “the shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination [to come] crashing to the ground.”
For reasons I’m at a loss to explain, I waxed nostalgic along those same lines as I gazed out at the city from the window of the plane. Maybe it was the lethargy I still felt from all that downtime under palm trees of the Yucatan, or maybe it was the after-effects of my having lost a bet with Kyoko the night before over a bottle of tequila, and the worm I drank was still alive and turning in my entrails, but for whatever reason my resistance to sullen introspection was ebbing to an all-time low. The landing flight path took us straight up Broadway; but my usual sense of wonderment and pride over that view immediately soured as we neared the southern tip of Manhattan.
I got my first glimpse from the air of the newly-completed Memorial Plaza, and might as well have been gazing upon the face of Medusa. Before I could stop it, a torrent of quicksilver memories of that September morning cut through me like Rio’s straight razor. I felt like a kid who had just tripped and spilled his bag of marbles, and who had to frantically scurry in a vain attempt to somehow catch them all. Only my reflexes weren’t fast enough, so I sat helpless as my Pandora’s Box of memories vomited up thick billowing black clouds of vaporized steel, glass and flesh and splattered them across my mind’s eye. I sat, frozen, a prisoner of my own recollections, and looked on as those plumes of smoke and flame continued to churn, fuelled by jet engines, only to then abruptly collapse in a pan-caking cascade of debris crumbling towards the ground. Finally, my self-defenses kicked-in and dissolved the avalanche of mangled debris into a gentle shower of tears pouring into the pools the footprints of the Towers had become; black granite pools plugged, like dual computer processor chips, into the earth in a vain attempt to help us calibrate and come to terms with what was lost.
If that wasn’t disturbing enough, that somber and unsettling vision immediately collided with another as we continued north, to the cluster-fuck of meandering pedestrians cluttering the Disney-like mall we’ve made of Times Square; a swarming hive of pixies armed with shopping bag wings fluttering under lights so blinding they cowed night itself into submission. Huge digital billboards boosted ads thousands of feet in the air, and mammoth-sized screens bombarded passersby with an endless loop of xenophobic newscasts and promos geared to wearers of disposable income in any currency known to man. Midtown stared up at me like a painted whore plucked from the garish parlor of a border town bordello; hustling harmless thrills to the throngs of faceless, nameless tourists that even we so-called residents have become.
Suddenly it all seemed horribly wrong and hopelessly foreign. I had to shake and remind myself that this wasn’t a storyboard set left over from Blade Runner. This was supposed to be New York, a city I’ve called home since my birth and fell hopelessly in love with soon thereafter, but that now seemed uncomfortably distant and alien, and I was overcome by a momentous sense of loss. Perhaps it was the sharp juxtaposition of those two conflicting images which hit me like a runaway sixteen-wheeler. Maybe my fatigue after the long flight home made me especially susceptible to the vagaries of an ever-changing landscape. Maybe I was finally struck by just how much our obsession with being constantly entertained on one hand and kept safe and secure on the other has ultimately cost us, but whatever it was I sat in my seat on the plane and wondered how the city of eight million people could abruptly go missing.
Well, perhaps not abruptly. As already noted, my F. Scott Fitzgerald moment has been quietly rehearsing inside me for some time. Putting things in perspective is part of what I’m suppose to do for a living, so I understand that New York has always reinvented itself and that it’s skyscrapers, like so many of its features, have perennially come and gone. I know the grid has been erected, dismantled and built up again, generation after generation, as the city inexorably grew. I know that the city the Dutch founded rose as an edifice to commerce, driven by the engines of self-profit, pragmatic accommodation and unbounded imagination. New York rose on the landscape like a modern day Yggdrasil, a great, man-made world tree with deep roots anchored in bedrock and stretching out towards all horizons. Its over-reaching branches formed a thick, protective canopy from whose boughs hung fruits both promised and forbidden in Eden. The city was an open, limitless harbor and idyllic haven to the tallest ships and the greatest dreams. Its towering buildings were cathedrals to the business of dauntless ambition, and its shimmering lure reduced the Atlantic Ocean to a veritable river Jordan; becoming the melting pot and chief port of entry into the Promised Land that was the New World.
The rest of the country didn’t always like or understand the great experiment that was New York, but the best and the brightest followed the yellow brick road that invariably led here, regardless. Who could blame them? Only in the Emerald City could each and every one of them glimpse behind the curtain and dare become who they were. New York became the yardstick of all effort and ambition and the one true measure of success. Here all things were possible, and when fame and fortune was won and lost one could be consoled by the fact that, in New York at least, it could be won yet again if you were worthy. We were the great cauldron, the world’s pressure-cooker, the personified energy and aspiration of an age, the jewel in Lady Liberty’s crown and raison d’etre for an entire nation. Here, in the daunting canyons of New York’s towering skyline, and not in the wilting cornfields of Iowa, was America’s true Field of Dreams.
I’m not sure exactly where and when that changed, but it has and I don’t like it.
Being the fictional dick that I am I know a frame job when I see one, so I have no intention of laying the blame for this sad turn of affairs at the 9/11 doorstep, as if one more orphan of war. Too much bullshit’s been swept under that rug, already. We’ve been force-fed enough lies and misdirection as it is, so I’m not going to add to our collective indigestion. Let’s keep it real and remind ourselves that New York has always been a target because of what it was and what it symbolized. There’s nothing new about envy, hatred and fear, and we’ve always had more than our fair share of enemies; foreign and especially domestic. That kind of animus comes with the territory. We’ve always been brash, even arrogant, albeit sometimes provincial, but we’ve also always been best, and we’ve always defiantly weathered all storms and have emerged bigger, better and badder for all the sticks and stones thrown at us. So let’s cut the crap and admit that the shock of that morning in September wasn’t that the Towers were attacked — both we and they had been attacked before — what we can’t forgive, forget or abide by is that fact that they actually fell. I keep seeing the collapse of those ugly-duckling towers in my mind, a bad dream stuck in an endless cycle of rewind and play, and begrudgingly admit that their falling struck me like the breaking of an inviolate promise; the breach of sacred contract, a betrayal, almost and a shattering demonstration that there was indeed, as Fitzgerald saw seventy years ago, a limit to the city, it’s people and it’s power.
It’s not our innocence that was lost on September 11 —we never had any to lose — but our collective hubris; our peculiar expression of Manifest Destiny and brazen audacity that enabled us to reach up and out and construct towers to the stars. To be painfully honest — always dangerous — I’m not sure we still possess the energy, the audacity and the resolve to rebuild them.
You can say I’m full of shit and I won’t argue, but that don’t make me wrong. I look at the city lately and don’t like what I see. I don’t like its fortress-like mentality, the constant surveillance, the barricades and check points, our bunker mentality and the Doublespeak of the media and our so-called ‘leaders’ trying to convince us that living in constant fear is natural. New York was once the great transformer, the great shape-changer to all within its seemingly endless reach, but the tables have turned and the city has now become the thing that is routinely gutted and flayed. I look at New York these days and see every other outlet strip mall in the country; the same fast food restaurants selling us shit we shouldn’t eat, the same retail chains selling us cheap shit we didn’t make and the same luxury stops selling quality shit most of us can’t afford. We pay lip service to mutual accommodation and diversity, and no one knows or cares about what and who was here before them or can tell you the name of who lives next door. New York has always been a magnet for the clash of outrageous wealth and abject poverty, but there was usually an open conduit between the two that’s now as distant and forgotten now as a decent egg-cream and the Third Avenue L.
I’m not about to pull a Pete Hamill and reminisce on times gone-by. He does it far better than I could, and his memory is longer than mine. But even this native son can see we’ve become a city of transients, a stopover for both the mega-rich whose luxury condos are little more than time-shares to a bite of the Big Apple and for the growing underclass only here holding fill-in gigs en route to being something somewhere else. We’ve become a city of tourists, hipsters, sand-baggers and day-traders profiting on playing small margins and selling each other short. Our one and only product now is bullshit. Everyone wants in on the action, but it’s all done by proxy and remote control, and when no one is accountable someone else is always to blame. No one has enough real skin in the game anymore to give a “Whoop-De-Damn Do” when the cameras aren’t turning. Everyone arrives here now primping for their close-up and their fifteen minutes of fame, and since they know all the answers they dismiss everyone else with the condescending disdain they once reserved for itinerant busboys. They’re not content becoming part of the great melting pot; they’re all self-styled Reggie Jackson’s determined to stir the whole drink. But if they’re that fucking smart I wonder why they had to leave home in the first place.
My snoop’s nose tells me the tragic events of September 11 didn’t start this transformation, but they may well have marked its culmination; the shattering moment when you realize that even the greatest cities can fall down.
That’s the F. Scott moment I had while gazing out an airplane window at the city on my way home from Mexico. I’m not one to cut and run when things get tough, but I’m also not entirely stupid. Next time I’ll book a seat on the aisle and spare myself the grief.