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LA Story

December 18, 2013 | by

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I have just moved to Los Angeles from the Middle East, and everyone keeps asking me if the city is too quiet—Am I bored? Is it safe?—and the answer is, No, I am not bored; yes, it seems safe, and yes, that’s fine by me. Mostly I am in a state of awe, blown away by a grocery store, the knock of the mailman at the door, the speed of the Internet; the easy friends you can make on the sidewalk or on the bus or while watching your kids play soccer or walking down Venice Boulevard, waiting for a light to change, en route to the University of Southern California, where I found myself the other day, seeking out the next thing I might do with my life, right before things went wrong again.

I was facing new and mostly pleasant options. Such as: Should I wish to travel across the east-west spine of Lost Angeles, in the fall of 2013, from Venice to the urban campus of USC, did I want to walk four or five hours, doing ten miles on foot; drive thirty minutes; ride a bike for an hour and a half; or, as I ultimately resolved to do, take a city bus to the Culver City train line.

Showering, lacing up a pair of suede boots, donning a clean shirt, loading up a satchel with books and water, I crossed Lincoln Boulevard, behind a smog-check shop, whose sign made it clear they’s only do checks, not repairs, and then I followed an alley parallel to six lanes of heavy afternoon traffic.

In front of a crumbling apartment complex, on a set of concrete stairs, I admired a selection of jars, bowls, fire-rimmed tin cans, and handmade signs. Next to one pagan cup leaned a pair of tongs, perhaps for a hookah, and then I was accosted by a man who stood beside the open door of a midnineties Ford Explorer. Read More »

4 COMMENTS

Beached

October 24, 2013 | by

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There is something brutal about Philip Glass’s opera. The way it stops and starts, the taunting tease of a story, then the way it’s anything but narrative. Composed of nine twenty-minute scenes, the whole of Einstein on the Beach—first produced in 1976 and shown in L.A. for the first time this month—is interspersed by five so-called “knee plays,” in which two women sit or stand or writhe around on plastic platforms, or search dreamily inside gently moving glass boxes. It’s not easy to watch.

“This was a very American month.”

It’s thirty days since we moved to California after five years in the Middle East and in the darkened pavilion I start memorizing lines. I’m sitting beside one of my oldest friends. I am fearful my glasses will fall from my head. I picture my phone tumbling from my hand—possibly injuring Jack Nicholson, who is seated below—and I think about the car I am borrowing from my mom, parked deep underground, at least until the show is over, a car that is mine until we buy one of our own, or decide to go back.

We started eight levels down, in an auxiliary parking lot under a mall. Space for thousands. Walking to the opera, I’m dazzled by simple things, like the cool hush of an elevator, the absence of tanks, and the clothes people in L.A. wear when they aren’t going to a Dodgers game. The lights go down and two women in black suspenders and white shirts begin to murmur about Toyotas and the price and a certain number of coins. I think about our house in Venice, with its brittle wooden walls and a heater the size of a VW, glowing hot under the floorboards. I think about Beirut, and how far we’lve come since a brutal spring. Dancers curl through the smoke, scissoring around on a dimly lit stage. A boy throws paper airplanes from a metal aerie, and a violinist with grey hair scratches across the strings, both as long as it should be, and about as beautiful as it could be. So far.

“Any one asks you please it was trees it it it it it it it it it it is like that.” Read More »

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Bones

October 9, 2013 | by

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You discover one day—while everyone else is doing whatever it is that makes them happy—that you can almost pop one of the bones in your hand right out of the skin. It’s awesome. First, you practice in secret, when you’re bored or exasperated by school. But one day, you are practicing out in the open when someone notices the little bit of white sticking out, and they say, Wow, how cool, and they ask you to do it again. Look at this guy, they say—when formerly you were ignored or marginalized or made to feel you were odd or would at any rate never to amount to much—and it occurs to you: maybe you’re on to something.

You get good at it, the bone popping, and in college you realize there’s a whole department devoted to the study of it: how they did it in the old days, how it became different when the boats came to North America. Yet, on the musty college campus, everything seems safe and no one’s trying hard enough. In fact, it’s difficult to find anyone doing a good or brave job of bone popping.

Eventually, you find places in the big city—loft buildings, various dark cafés—where people gather. Most can pop one or two hand bones, but a few can do their whole arm bone or an entire leg. Some of these people are actually making a living doing this. They get contracts to spend years on one big bone popping. Some win awards, or fellowships. But no matter how good you get, one old timer says, never remove your heart. Then you’re dead.

So you practice, getting good, refining your technique. Read More »

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Senior Poetry

July 29, 2013 | by

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In Beirut, there’s a shovel-faced gremlin sitting in front of the whorehouse. I’m just passing by, and he eyes me from his perch on a coffee can, where he rocks back and forth, opening and closing his fists, one bloodshot fish-eye firmly closed, the other spinning wildly. He barks out suddenly, a sharp noise like the backfire of an old Mercedes, and I turn to see his massive feet slap the pavement in black sneakers, his chest splattered in wet cigarette ash. Checking my watch, I still have ample time before I meet Marilyn Hacker, the eminent poet, who’s agreed to an audience with my class of elderly writing students. The gremlin smacks his lips, the size and shape of small fish, and I’m happy to be rounding a corner.

Down the block, I see the lantern-jawed doorman with the scarf, patrolling his stretch of sidewalk. He’s got the chiseled chin, the squinting, seen-it-all eyes, and the mane of hair of an Arab George Clooney. Yet for all his confidence, I’ve never seen the guy do anything but smoke, smile, and gesture admiringly at some cool car and—today—the shapely form of a woman’s rear end.

On the next block, the bellhop is a puppy dog in a gray tux. Months ago, he told me he’d have a new uniform. Another day he smoothed his collar and tousled my hair. Later still, he blew me a kiss, and on another day he pretended not to see me, then yelled out my name, which I had not realized he knew. I spied him at a local grocery store, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and in his basket was only tea and chocolate. Today he is busy. Read More »

2 COMMENTS

Sandwich Man

May 28, 2013 | by

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Managing this chain of Subway sandwich shops in Aleppo totally blows. I’m ensuring the bread gets baked, the cheeses displayed properly, that the tomatoes are freshly sliced and that the discs of various kinds of meat do not smell strange and that all the dispensers of condiments are filled. We ran out of napkins during the last bombardment and that was fucked up, but honestly I don’t even know if the home office even knows we are still open, let alone whether we are keeping customers hands clean. They don’t seem to care! But what is worse is that my BEST assistant manager quit in order to start working as a sniper in that old hospital building—she is a total fucking saint, with a quick finger that once punched out subtotals and now rips out bullets, I guess—and all I’m trying to do is hold it together, which is why I was so relieved when I had a little time off this weekend and had the chance to take our girl to a birthday party in Beirut.

She’s just three-and-a-half, which seems really young to me, but what do I know? I just manage a chain of Subway sandwich shops in the embattled Syrian cultural capital of Aleppo. I’m no expert in what children are capable of. Read More »

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Going Soft

January 29, 2013 | by

In Rome, I was cocky and competitive and altogether my usual self because the apartment we’d rented for the night was completely white—sheets, pillows, towels—and much bigger than expected, with a cow’s head mounted on a wall and great, familiar coffee and I might as well have been in Istanbul or Moscow or New York or the many other places I had lived and worked, and I was thinking, after all that, how hard could Italy be? What’s the big deal? Yet that concern about experience or mastery or difficulty was to miss an essential point. That a good thing doesn’t have to be hard.

At the pub downstairs, the guy my wife knew knew from Baghdad was telling my wife how to get into Syria. I sighed, feeling everything retighten. A light rain fell as we passed through the piazza, and I saw cops and I stared at their guns. Under heat lamps, we hefted tall glasses of blood-dark wine and when we ordered the final carafe, all this big talk about the usual terrible things, there was nothing to do but float home on a red river. Read More »

6 COMMENTS