The Daily

First Person

Pursued by H

February 9, 2016 | by

Finding a letter in a burrito.

femmeauburrito

Femme au Burrito, an 1875 painting by Auguste Renoir modified by Chili’s for a 2015 ad campaign with Buzzfeed. Image via Buzzfeed

I was somewhat delirious when I found the letter H in my burrito. I had two weeks to finish translating a difficult novel, and I was teaching at two different universities, one so far away it took three trains and two hours to get there. I was also writing a novel at night instead of sleeping.

And now, here, in the burrito I’d bought for lunch, there appeared to be an uppercase H in nine-point font stuck to a piece of tomato. I brought the burrito closer to make sure I wasn’t simply reading too much into a pepper flake. But no, this was definitely a piece of paper with a tiny letter on it, part of a typewritten word. I unrolled the tortilla to see if there were more letters inside; maybe a piece of newspaper had gotten sautéed with the onions. But I found only salsa, beans, tomatoes, and that solitary HRead More »

Introduction Into an Obscurity

February 3, 2016 | by

From the cover of Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens.

There is nothing more hopeless in this world than the so-called Southwestern Regional Bus Station in Nanjing on May 5, 2002, shortly before seven o’clock in the drizzling rain and the unappeasable icy wind, as, in the vast chaos of the buses departing from the bays of this station, a regional bus, starting from the No. 5 bus stop, slowly ploughs onward—among the other buses and the puddles and the bewildered crowd of wretched, stinking, grimy people—up to the vortex of the street, then sets off into the wretched, stinking, grimy streets; there is nothing more hopeless than these streets, than these interminable barracks on either side, numbed into their own provisional eternity, because there is no word for this hopeless color, for this slowly murderous variation of brown and gray, as it spreads over the city this morning, there is no word for the assault of this hopeless din, if the bus pauses briefly at a larger intersection or a bus stop, and the female conductor with her worn features opens the door, leans out, and, hoping for a new passenger, shouts out the destination like a hoarse falcon; because there is no word which in its essence could convey whether the direction in which he now travels with his companion, his interpreter, exists in relation to the world; they are headed outward, moving away from it, the world is ever farther and farther away, ever more behind them; they are shaken, jolted in advance in the disconsolate brown and yellow of this ever-thicker, indescribable fog; headed to where it can hardly be believed that there could be anything beyond the brown and the gray of this frighteningly dreary mixture; they sit at the back of the ramshackle bus, they are dressed for May but for a different May, so they are chilled and they shiver and they try to look out of the window but they can hardly see through the grimy glass, so they just keep repeating to themselves: Fine, good, it’s all right, they can somehow put up with this situation, not to be eaten up from without and within by this grimy and hopeless fog is their only hope; and that where they are going exists, that where this bus is supposedly taking them—one of the most sacred Buddhist mountains, Jiuhuashan*—exists. Read More »

Ernie and Me

February 2, 2016 | by

Falling in—and falling out—with Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway in uniform as an American Red Cross volunteer, 1918. Portrait by Ermeni Studios, Milan, Italy. Photo: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

As a young man of a certain kind, I read a lot of Hemingway growing up. My sixteen-year-old self, full of angst and emo aches, found a kindred spirit in Jake Barnes, even if Jake’s brooding was much deeper, darker, and more significant than my own. The northern Michigan of the Nick Adams stories bore a passing resemblance to the Tahoe Basin, where I grew up, and my earliest attempts at creative work were pale imitations of “The End of Something” and “The Three-Day Blow.” The Old Man and the Sea bored me to video games the first time I tried it, but that didn’t stop me from extolling Santiago’s badassness at the dinner table.

This was pre-9/11 America, in a suburban, white-collar community far removed from battle or turmoil. My parents were both children of World War II veterans, and both had protested the Vietnam War; as a result, my brother and I had been raised with a healthy respect for the military, mixed with a healthy skepticism toward the application of military force. While my Hemingway obsession did confuse my mom a bit, she later told me she figured at least it wasn’t drugs, or French philosophy. Read More »

Pink Cigarettes

January 29, 2016 | by

Lighting up.

Why not?

I smoked my first cigarette with three or four friends near the pond behind our middle school. We obeyed all the stereotypes, puffing and passing, accusing one another of not inhaling, taking turns as lookouts until there was nothing left but the filter. We were fourteen.

I come from a long line of smokers—my grandfather smoked cigars; my dad and older brothers, cigarettes—so smoking seemed preordained for me. It was just a matter of time. My parents forbade my brothers and me from smoking on principle, even as my father smoked his Viceroys in front of us. Eventually, after shouting matches with mom and in order to make room for dad’s contradiction (which wasn’t lost on my brothers), the no-smoking ban became simply, desperately, “not around the house.” Read More »

The Last of the Mohicans

January 14, 2016 | by

Remembering Giorgio Gomelsky, 1934–2016.

Giorgio Gomelsky, NYC 1999 © GODLIS

I met Giorgio through Robert Fripp in 1980. He thought Giorgio should work with me on the single my band was getting set to record. At the time, Giorgio was living in the loft that housed Squat Theatre, an Eastern European guerilla theater collective on West Twenty-Fourth Street. They put on strange events and pornographic puppet shows at their loft, ten dollars at the door, stay all night. And they sponsored Polish punk bands, held rallies protesting rent and sodomy laws, dealt dope, and more or less lived a wild East Village life, despite being in Chelsea. 

Giorgio was a big, beefy character with a mane of thick greasy black hair, a goatee, and a thick Russian accent that grew more and more pronounced as he drank or expounded on his various theories on life and music and the evils of the bourgeoisie. Fripp had told me stories of how Giorgio had shown up at the Marché International du Disque et de l’Edition Musicale, the music business trade show, one year with a parrot on his shoulder, and how, anytime he was approached by a label about licensing material, he’d confer with the parrot in Russian before shaking his head and turning down the offer with a show of disdain. In this way, he was able to generate more attention, double his offers, and confound various labels into thinking he was a genius. Fripp also implied that, at the close of MIDEM, Giorgio had eaten the parrot. Read More »

Pimped for a Part

January 11, 2016 | by

My mother makes a match.

Image via New York Public Library.

My mother was open-minded about the boys I brought home. She was, in fact, oblivious to any of their flaws. In high school, in Philadelphia, my platinum-haired boyfriend, Billy, who walked with a strut and stole cars, OD’d in our basement under my black-light poster of Jimi Hendrix; Mom was fine about my visits to him in the locked ward in the Quaker mental hospital across the street from us on Roosevelt Boulevard. My next boyfriend, Randy, a whimsical outpatient with a genius IQ at the same hospital—we met on the bus; he was coming from prep school—got permission to have dinner with us one evening and afterward played with my gerbil. Randy blurted that he hallucinated perpetually because of all the LSD he’d taken and that now he was on Thorazine, Elavil, and a third prescription I can’t recall. My mother’s only comment: he should trim his nails.

She did seem to cotton on to my Mormon suitor in college (my only vice was tea) but criticized his piano playing as “stiff.” She did not seem disturbed when four years later I had a “dancer/artist” boyfriend in sex therapy (“You’re sexually repulsive to me,” he’d confided, “but don’t take it personally, all women are”), and she said nothing disparaging about his successor, an alcoholic Columbia University student/construction worker who accidentally burned, hoping to keep warm during a cold snap, all the savings he’d hidden in his never-used oven. He once showed up drunk at four A.M. with a lipstick-swished cheek and confessed he’d kissed another woman who’d bought him a cabbage, but it was me he really loved, he said, and then punched a hole in my door. Mom remained mute when I confided I’d met, in Egypt, a much younger French Algerian paratrooper named Karim, even when I revealed that he would call me long distance from Marseilles and never talk—simply whisper my name and breathe for twenty minutes, or play a tape of music he’d written. My bass-player roommate at that time, Sara, once quipped, “Karim’s mother’s not going to be very happy when she sees that phone bill.” Read More »