The Daily

First Person

A Gritty Little Something on the New York Street

March 25, 2016 | by

Remembering Phife Dawg—a family perspective.

Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg.

I lived in New York for the first time for the summer of 2006, between my junior and senior years of college. I was in love with words. I’d started writing, but I needed a job, so I entered book publishing. Two days a week, I read manuscripts in the magnificent but decaying Flatiron Building; at night, I worked the coat check at a white-tablecloth restaurant on Union Square for spending money (the perfect gig, as in the summer I had few customers, and spent most of my time reading). After my shifts at the restaurant, I took the 5 train uptown to Harlem with the typical collection of bleary-eyed late-night workers and drunk revelers, where I slept on a cot in the living room of my aunt’s two-bedroom apartment.

The apartment was modest but warmly decorated in pinks, oranges, and turquoises—colors that undoubtedly reminded her of Trinidad, her island home. Our sleeping arrangement mirrored that of my great-grandmother’s house. She’d lived till she was ninety-eight: a former caretaker who’d immigrated from a rural part of the island, she’d saved enough money to buy a semidetached three-bedroom house in Jamaica, Queens.

As several family members and friends before and after her did, my aunt, the poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, had stayed with my great-grandmother to get on her feet in America. She married young, had a child, and, after an amicable divorce, started dating women—a shock to our family of devout Seventh Day Adventists. When I was younger, my parents, in a typical move of the time, never discussed her sexuality. I only knew that she had many female friends, and after a while, sometimes they would be gone from her life in a way that was unusual for just friends. In that apartment, she finally gave me a name for what she was, speaking to me openly about her life like I was an equal, capable enough to understand and not to judge.

On the wall of the apartment hung a portrait of Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, who was her son and my cousin. She told me that when visitors came by, they would uniformly exclaim how much they loved him. Why do you have a picture of him? they’d ask, before dropping one of his verses, and she would answer with pride, He’s my son, her perfect white smile beaming. Read More »

The Full Complement

March 22, 2016 | by

A misadventure in pedantry.

A 1919 illustration of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” by Milo Winter.

One goes to the right, the other to the left; both are wrong, but in different directions.
—Horace, Satires

There is no mistake; there has been no mistake; and there shall be no mistake.
—Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington

For fifteen years, I had scrupulously avoided reading the Novelist’s work, except maybe for a few short pieces in major magazines, which I’d scan for a bit and then set aside. Don’t ask me why I refused to read the Novelist—I had my reasons. I sincerely believed I would not enjoy The Novelist’s work, based on what I’d heard about it. But I was also afraid I might like the Novelist’s work. If it should turn out that The Novelist, who is the same age as me, were truly the voice of his/her generation, that would make it harder for me to claim that mantle at some undisclosed future date. And at our age, that window is rapidly closing, if not already shut, sealed, and winterized.

But finally this past summer, with the Novelist’s name and foibles monopolizing the main channels of every social medium, I could no longer bear to remain the only writer in New York without an opinion about the Novelist. I took the plunge and read one of the Novelist’s most iconic works. Read More »

The Road to Toluca

March 3, 2016 | by

“As I let the shotgun drop the butt hit the bricks and the second shell fired into me...”

From the cover of The Child Poet

An excerpt from The Child Poet.

One Saturday toward noon in January 1951, three friends and I made our way home after playing soccer. The milky rays of a nearly white sun ploughed the damp earth, and our shadows moved neatly beneath our soles each time we lifted a foot to take a step. When we reached my house I waved goodbye to my friends. Without replying they continued on their way.

My solitary steps echoed along the sunlit corridor; my parents were at the store. And then I went into my brother’s room, although I hadn’t meant to go in … A shotgun someone had lent him was propped against the wall. As if moving by their own accord, my hands reached for it. I walked to the backyard and climbed onto a pile of bricks that were being used to build the new kitchen. There was no one around; the bricklayer and the peon were having lunch in the old dining room.

Standing on the bricks, I saw some birds alight on the sapodilla tree next door, to be momentarily covered by the branches … Until they returned to the air, over my head, high in the blue above … And without wanting to, I aimed the shotgun at them and fired, not intending to kill a single one.

I watched with relief as they all flew on until they were lost in the distance. But as I let the shotgun drop the butt hit the bricks and the second shell fired into me. Such was the blow I felt from the shots that I thought infinity had entered my belly. Read More »

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 »