March 5, 2012 | by Thomas Beller
I was at the last show of the night in a movie theater in New Orleans, and I stepped out midway to go to the bathroom. The movie was loud, cacophonous, upsetting—a documentary about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. As I peed, I stared absentmindedly at a tile in the wall in front of me.
There was nothing remarkable about this tile, but I felt an involuntary shiver. I was alone in the bathroom, but it occurred to me that the bathroom itself had once been alone and empty—for days, weeks, maybe months during the hurricane and evacuation. It had been frozen in time like the figures in Pompeii but without any bodies to be captured in mid-life, mid-gesture. Instead, what had been captured, what resonated, was a stillness that persisted even now, after the city had ostensibly come back to life.
Cities are not meant to be emptied. Most of them never are. Even in their quietest hour they have a rustling sense of breath. But I had once spent time in another city that had also been emptied: Phnom Penh, which was evacuated under the Khmer Rouge.
Phnom Penh was, from the moment I saw it in 1994, a place that refused comparison. At first I accepted this. I had come for new experiences and I was happy, if often unnerved, to let new experiences prick me with their unfamiliarity. But then I began to feel a certain resistance in me, an effort to corral all the stimulation and make it adhere to a context with which I was familiar. I was trying, as I always did, to see Phnom Penh through the lens of my hometown, New York. Read More »
December 12, 2011 | by Thomas Beller
The streets are covered in snow. The wind whips harshly, a blizzard’s aftermath, and in the laundry room in the basement of my childhood building, I find a neighbor pulling clothes out of the dryer.
She is distracted when I say hello, stares at me unrecognizingly. But then something clicks and a shaky stream of lucidity pours fourth. She asks after my mother, my wife, the kid. And I ask after Gary, my old babysitter, who used to take me downstairs to their apartment on the C line.
The building has four lines of apartments—A, B, C, and D—and two separate elevators. The C line, facing east, gets the least light. It shares the landing with the D line, which overlooks the river and gets the most. Through a door, down the service hallway, and through another set of doors, and you are on the A-B landing, where I grew up and now return for the holidays.
In the whole building, these days, there is a slight tension, the old guard and the new. Anyone who has come in during the last decade spent a fortune to be here. The old guard are certainly not have-nots, but they come from a different world. They march with dignified postures in and out of the lobby, nodding to the doormen, almost indignant at what their apartments are worth, the strain of the contradiction playing faintly on their faces. Read More »
September 9, 2011 | by Thomas Beller
I turned down the driveway, which descended slightly from the road, the house barely visible through the pines. The feeling was of entering a secret world. I arrived in front of an open-air garage, filled with vintage Corvettes and Maseratis. Just beyond it, across a stretch of lawn, was a basketball court.
It was a sunny August morning in East Hampton. I had come to play in a memorial game for a man who had died in the twin towers. The man who had built this house.
I was a friend of a friend, recruited to help fill out the roster. Since the guy’s last name started with G, and since my childhood friend Jimmy Gartenberg was killed on that same day, in that same place, I gave a private nod to Jimmy.
The basketball court was a fantasy: glass backboards, three point lines, beautiful landscaping. A TV crew would be filming, I had been told. The widow had written a book. I would be both participant and prop. Read More »