Grand Union: Stories


A great Austrian painter—he lives in a forest in Hungary—came by the apartment one day with his daughters, both red-headed with pigtails, pale-faced, silent. They wore the kind of clothes you can’t buy in any shop, you have to get them delivered direct from the turn of the century. Fucking angels, both of them. Meanwhile my kids raged around the place, dressed as tiny long-distance truckers, hyped-up on sour gummies. They clung to their tablets as if to items necessary for their very survival—colostomy bags, say. But I refused to be ashamed. Like everyone else in America these days, I stand in my truth.

On the other hand, he is a terrific painter. Of all the living painters he is the most livingiest and also the most painterly. About four years ago he found a whole new vernacular to the point that nobody sees much point in painting anymore, and so he has somehow both revivified painting and killed it off simultaneously. Of course, we’re all terribly jealous. His occasional visits to the city mean an awful lot and I was honored this time to get to be the one to host him and his pair of silent angels. I’d invited a few of my downtown crowd to touch the hem of his garment, but when he walked in with his girls we all saw straight away that there would be no garment-touching and no way would he agree to come to Café Loup with us to chew on some tough schnitzel and get blasted till the early hours. He’s the real deal, and therefore, like his daughters, mostly silent. Honestly, it was how I imagine it might be to have Schopenhauer round to tea. An honor and a privilege, sure, but socially pretty hard work. He stayed about an hour and a half. Said maybe two paragraphs of human words, none of which turned out to be metaphysical or existential or even aesthetic. How to get to x or y on the L, at which hotel he was staying, when and where the children might eat. Long silences in between. Finally, it was time to go. At the doorway he said, as if it had just occurred to him: “I don’t understand how you can live here, and be an artist, among all this social noise and all of these people. I myself live in an Hungarian forest.” It was the kind of statement calculated to drive me into a frenzy of self-hatred. I thanked him for his inquiry—and his “an”—and pointed him in the direction of the L. Then I sent everyone home and got in a funk for a few days.

* * *​

The New York Public School Calendar does not recognize funks, personal, existential, artistic or otherwise. School starts on September 4th and that’s that. The only way to get out of it is to take an ordinary belt, tie it round your neck, loop it round a door handle and then sit suddenly upon the floor. Although this method likely won’t get your kid out of having to turn up on that first day, it will at least mean you don’t have to take them. It was September 4th—I had to take them. In the line to get through the school gates—a momentous line, which snakes from Café Loup all the way down Sixth Avenue like a tapeworm of the Devil—a parent started talking to me about his family’s transformative summer break to the jungles of Papua New Guinea. It had taken three planes to get there, they’d gone to bed with monkeys and woken up with sloths and the whole trip had been utterly transformative: transformative to escape the American “situation,” transformative for him personally, and for his wife, and for the children, but especially for him. Transformative. I peered at this dude very closely. I hadn’t seen him since last September 4th but to my painterly eye he didn’t appear especially transformed. Seemed like much the same asshole.

* * *​

On the sad, childless walk home, I heard a very old white lady outside Citarella exclaim loudly into her phone: “But he’s not my friend, he’s my driver!” To which a tall boy in sequinned culottes with a Basquiat ’fro—who happened to be passing—replied: “Lady, you are GOALS.” My concern about both jungles and forests is that you can’t really imagine anything like that happening in them.

* * *​

I was in such a funk I left town for a few days, taking a train down the Eastern Seaboard. I read E. M. Cioran and agreed with him when he said he agreed with Josep Pla who had previously agreed with himself that we are nothing but it’s hard to admit it. In the Potomac, at seven in the morning, I saw four men in a little canoe, all facing forward, with a heroic cast to their faces. You’d have thought they were bringing a body back from a fatal duel. I watched as their craft moved silently through the water and the fog, past the Washington Monument. At the bow, a single pilot light. It was all so beautiful. It was a symbol of something. I considered looking into local forest real estate. But I missed the city.

* * *​

By the time I got back (I’d spent longer away than I’d thought), Café Loup had closed, Dr. Ford was testifying, and the combination of these events was causing mass hysteria below 14th Street. The café had actually closed in the summer, the very same day somebody (the city?) had installed a large yellow megaphone at the crossroads of Greenwich and Sixth, at which megaphone what happens is, when you press the button beside whatever historic Greenwich Village writer’s name is by that particular button, well, what happens is you hear them reading a few lines of their writing, thus affirming the past cultural significance of the Village despite all present evidence to the contrary. You can press Willa Cather you can press Amiri Baraka you can press Frank O’Hara you can press Jimmy Baldwin I could go on. But because of the culturally insensitive timing, what was actually happening as we walked by was a crazy young man with a fashion haircut was running up to the megaphone at intervals and screaming into it: CAFÉ LOUP HAS CLOSED! CAFÉ LOUP HAS CLOSED! Me and my kids sat down on the bright red wrought-iron furniture the city has set up at that traffic circle and watched him go. CAFÉ LOUP HAS CLOSED! Then he’d run down the street and you’d think that was the end of it but a minute later he’d be back, tight white jeans all sweaty, fashion hair whipping around in the breeze, still screaming: CAFÉ LOUP HAS CLOSED! THIS IS NOT A DRILL! CAFÉ LOUP HAS CLOSED! My son asked me if the young man was “sick in the head,” which is our downtown euphemism for batshit crazy, but my daughter who is very, very savvy said, “No way—look at his clothes!” I thought that was an interesting answer. It meant she was becoming an American. It meant she now refused to believe rich people can be batshit crazy.

* * *​

On Sunday, I went to Black Church to worship Monie Love and Dead Prez (featuring Jay). The minister led us through the catechism:

Monie in the middle

Where she at?

In the middle

Amen to that! Then we moved on to the body of the sermon, which was on our daily struggle:

You don’t like that do ya?

You fucked up the hood?

Nigga, right back to you!

Hell yeah!

You know we tired of starving my nigga!

And lo, I was in awe. To heareth the mode in which Dead Prez doth breaketh it down, economically. Seeingeth the whole game from top to bottom. Maybe there is no such game in an Hungarian forest, but I don’t live in an Hungarian forest, I live right here, and I was listening to the stone cold truth. I was deeply moved. We came together in prayer. We prayed for:

Sandra Bland
Trayvon Martin
Eric Garner
Alton Sterling
Philando Castile
Michael Brown

We did not stop there but I am practicing an economy of form. And the minister took us all in his embrace, in a human chain, and he did say: Now we shall come together in prayer for this young child who was shot because she was black. And God help me but I broke the chain. I said, See what you’ve done there is you’ve transformed an act of the perpetrator into a characteristic of the target. You’ve turned one person’s action into another person’s being. I said, You don’t say to a witch: the reason they’re dunking you is because you’re a witch. You say, the reason they’re dunking you is these motherfuckers believe in witchcraft! Their whole society is based on it! Nobody put a spell on them! They produce witchcraft every day, collectively, together! Their whole reality is constructed on a belief in witchcraft!

Well, Black Church got what I was saying but it wasn’t anything they hadn’t heard before and plus they didn’t feel it was particularly helpful in the present moment what with witches getting dunked right, left and center, every fucking place you looked. The minister took me aside and said: Now, you’re not American, are you? So you’re kind of talking out your ass, if you’ll excuse my technical religious language. And I said, Minister, you’re absolutely right, I am from the Caribbean side of things, and, like the pesky Africans, we haven’t yet learned the catechism fully. It takes years and years of training to fully concede you are a witch. But I’m amenable! I can be taught!

* * *​

Two of my aunts came to town, just in time for Brett to make his case. Being Jamaican ladies of a certain dimension, we took up a lot of the sidewalk and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. We started walking in Harlem and headed downtown, but my aunts still have the habit of making a little note in a calfskin notebook every time they see a glorious individual from the diaspora and by the time we got to Greene Street they’d seen seven hundred painters, three hundred and seventy-nine video and conceptual artists, about eight hundred writers, an infinity amount of musicians, forty-seven sculptors in various materials, a whole load of doctors and entertainment lawyers, plenty yoga teachers and so on and whatnot, plus a former president, Lyle Ashton Harris, John Legend, Hilton Als and Spike Lee himself. I said, Ladies, you’re gonna wear out those notebooks, you might as well try and take it all in your stride. We haven’t even got to Brooklyn! (Of course, I could have taken them elsewhere but they come from elsewhere and I wanted to show them the sparkling lights like any good niece on the tourist trail.) My aunts gave me the side eye. They folded their arms under their mighty bosoms. They said, Dear yellowbone niece, don’t be hurrying us on our holidays—let us take our sweet time. Maybe we were made witches, but this beautiful, globe-stretching coven you’re a part of is what we did with what was done to us, it is our own blessed creation, and a mighty glorious business it is too! Therefore: hush up. Let us enjoy it while we’re here. Now do you know where Lorraine Hansberry’s plaque is or do you not?

Anyway, by the time we got to the tip of the island they were in high racial spirits and didn’t mind too much settling into a corner booth and watching the proceedings from Washington on a massive TV hung above the bar. Now, rape is as common in the history of our family as whatever is common in your family is common in yours, so what my aunts said next I take to have a certain authority. They said, This might look like a war between men and women, but what this really is is the last siege of a ruling class. See Brett up there making that little bitch-baby face? See that? That’s the face a baby makes when you try and take his rattle away. We’ve had many, many babies so we’re familiar. America being the rattle in this analogy. He thinks he deserves to do whatever he wants with that rattle, and women are simply a subclause in that arrangement. Remember when we pressed the button on that crazy yellow megaphone? When we heard blessed LeRoi Jones cry out THE NATION IS LIKE OURSELVES? But, dear yellowbone niece, as we have explained we are on holiday and we are here to have a good time. Can’t we go dancing now?

We danced for four days, which turned out to be the exact length of the investigation, and by the time my aunts’ taxi pulled in at JFK, Brett had proved once again that whenever a young Brett is born in these United States, born with a dream, that dream can truly come true. Yes, sir, if your baby Brett really puts his mind to it—if he believes, if he has faith, if he is a he, and if he is called Brett—he can do whatever it is he puts his mind to, and that goes double for all you Troys, Kips, Tripps, Bucks and Chads.

* * *​

Well, we were reeling. And I’m not the conspiratorial type but it did seem a bit suspicious that just as Brett was getting sworn in, everybody beneath 14th Street got an e-mail informing them that Café Loup was reopening. I think even a true artist living in an Hungarian forest can imagine that in the circumstances this felt like the best news any of us had heard in the longest time. I tried on four different outfits and then just went ahead and wore them all. I ran through the doors. It was packed to the rafters. But once you got over the incredible crush of human bodies it was impossible not to notice that not a thing had changed. The wallpaper was the same, the waiters were the same, the food was still not especially good, the tables were as usual flung randomly around the place, and everyone still thought the Austrian painter had either opened the door to a new possibility in painting or destroyed the possibility of painting altogether. The only difference was that instead of drinking our usual martinis while discussing this infinite subject, everybody was drinking beer, and clinking beers, and telling their waiters as they served more beer: “Sometimes I drank too much. Sometimes others did. I liked beer. I still like beer.” I suppose that kind of thing is why real artists live in Hungarian forests, but I live downtown so I took my seat at a series of different tables (the whole point of Café Loup is it’s a movable feast) and told everyone I met that the next time they saw me in this godforsaken joint or Black Church or anywhere else for that matter I’d have shed my green card and become a citizen because really what the fuck and the great thing about Café Loup is nobody rolled their eyes or pointed out the delicate matter of a new citizen’s eligibility for certain national art prizes until I was way down Sixth Avenue and couldn’t hear a thing.