I have a picture I took thirty years ago of a white clapboard house partially obscured by brilliant, blazing leaves of autumn. The photo, which I framed and hung in my Upper West Side apartment, represented something beatific, something out of reach. I could only imagine what it would be like to live in a house like that.

 (The Merry-Go-Round is Beginning to Taunt Me[1])


1. Author As [not circus] Dog Trainer (Cris)

You can’t lie to a dog. Or you can’t lie badly. While training dogs, you need to be “telling” them, with both body-language and voice, that they are the center of the universe to you, and that what they do for you—and what you’re doing together—makes you happier, and means more to you, than anything else in the world. They can tell if you’re lying. If you’re unconsciously communicating to them that you’re disappointed or upset because you’re thinking about something else, something offstage—whether your life’s true dilemma or your most current disappointment—they take it on as stress. To dogs, it’s all about them. So the trainer has to be able to convince the dog of that, whether it’s true in the trainer’s larger life or not. Problem is, the dog can usually tell. A good trainer doesn’t have “a larger life.” It’s never “just a dog” and therefore easy to lie to.

I. Where Past, Present and Future Collide

The first “psychic” reading I got some 12 years ago was involuntary. A shoddily clad heroin addict in Hamburg screamed my future at me: “YOU WILL DIE WITHIN THE NEXT THREE YEARS!” Pressing my face against the subway window I quietly started sobbing.

The next day I went to the doctor. He couldn’t find anything wrong, but suggested I go see a therapist.

I was moving down Broadway in a state of diminished intelligence, looking one way and another. I could have been a homeless. I imagine the ghosts of Indians wandering, lost in Manhattan, in loincloths, paint on their cheeks, stunned the way I am, crippled in their hearts by the height of what towers remain. Asking where the forests have gone to and concerned about game and survival, awed by these vehicles rumbling, awed by the light from the sky…

“Game” is a word I should note.

Notepad I should have.

I have to live life differently.


Don’t we all?

I need two phalluses next time around.

A person should have a Ferrari.

Scratch: a person should have the wisdom you get from Ferrari ownership.

I was still carrying the glove. It was a heavy workman’s glove found under a mailbox some number of blocks uptown. I must have spent three minutes on my knees wondering if I should take it—looked like a pretty swell glove.

At the corner of Twenty-fifth, I saw a hotel to the right. I was clutching the glove, backpack weighing on my shoulder, standing on the sidewalk outside of a Comfort Inn. It had been a residential building sometime in the past. Pale stone, redbrick. You could tell from the outside it would have to have one of those impoverished elevators inside, small as a phone booth and no sturdier.

I dropped the glove on the steps going in. I’d almost brought it with me to the front desk—my brain wasn’t well. The priority was not to go home.

The guy responded quickly to the bell. “Yes?”

“You have rooms?”

He said, “Yes.”

“What’s the rate?”

It was $229. I stood thinking, touching the counter with one hand and looking down. Then I said, “Thank you. Good night.”

“Good luck, sir.”

I stepped on the glove going out. I walked back to Broadway, continued downtown. A Comfort Inn is a Comfort Inn is a dump whether they charge $230 or $60. A cab home would cost $18, net of tip; people go home at the end of their days. I know all the basic procedures. Brush your teeth and floss. Mumble to your spouse and grab hold of that flab at her side; it gives you comfort through the night.

It was the quiet stretch below Twenty-third and above Union Square, where no business was open, no person was seen. I stopped at the display window of a particular high-end store and was staring at stemware. It was all crystal, with facets cut in. I like things like that. I happen to own a pillow with silk case that I paid $90 for, in ’02. The exact word for its color is “nacarat,” red tinged with orange; it’s a cognate of “nacre,” meaning mother-of-pearl: the pillow has a nacreous sheen. I was a big fan of it when I bought it—I was a big fan of myself while I was doing the buying, aware of the decadence of (a) having a throw pillow at all and (b) having a throw pillow that fucking expensive, as well as of the deeper decadence of not truly thinking, in my heart, the purchase was all that extravagant. The most decadent decadence is unreflexive, unaware, opaque to itself.

In the middle of the next street, I challenged a cab, and he slowed and was nailing the horn. I did not flip him the bird. I proceeded to cross the street at a pace so reduced you almost couldn’t tell I was moving. His engine roared as soon as he could pass me.

Muscles all over my body were sore. My feet hurt—I’d been walking for miles. I was hungry, and I wanted alcohol. I liked not knowing quite where I would sleep. It reminded me of being on the road in the old days, a long time ago, in a galaxy way the fuck out there.




Union Square was less dead, but still dead. The Barnes & Noble looked gloomy. The new books displayed in the window were like an affront. Screw them.

Approaching the corner of Park Avenue, I was staring at the W across the street. This is a decent hotel. The building is old and brick and passionately renovated, massive neon glowing from the roof in a color not far off from nacarat, gorgeous giant windows by the sidewalk, so the geeks can peer in and the meatheads inside can show off their three-figure blue jeans, three-figure T-shirts, or four-figure jackets, and how much they spend on their drinks. I always found that kind of vanity highly provocative and enraging.

As I entered the lobby, I practically slipped. They take good care of their floors. The handsome wooden banister at the left side of the curved stair shone as if it were metal. The woman at the desk smiled graciously.

I asked if they had a vacancy.


“What’s the best rate at this hour?”

“Best I can do is three-eighty,” she said.

“What time is checkout?”


“I would have the room for—what, seven hours… ? I’m a member of the Auto Club.”

“The triple-A rate is the same. Hold on a moment.” She was keying something in, looking pained. “I can give you three-forty.”

I was holding my silver MasterCard, pausing, with no other idea than the thought that I mustn’t go home. Paul would be there, and I couldn’t look at Paul.

I couldn’t have Paul look at me. I’d spent the day playing poker at Columbia, losing three Gs… Had to try to put it all behind me. “Could I get a late checkout?”

“Of course.”




Next morning, in the $340 room, I wasn’t hungover alcoholically with thorough physical sickness, nausea, and head pain. This hangover was different. It was all in the brain and the chest.

I tried showering. But that couldn’t help. My face’s reflection looked sickly. My skin couldn’t become clean. My skull throbbed, and my thoughts were all scrambled. I was feeling the restlessness still.

On the train home, all I could think as I sucked bad coffee heavily sugared was that I needed to shower my mind, rinse or scrub or exfoliate in there somehow. Hose it down, if I could.

There’s no way.

In any case. In any case.

I’m a strong bitch.

My might has been proved by now.

You could ask the Aladdin about it.

In the building I climbed the three flights. Someone had been smoking on the stairwell again. I got to the green metal door of the dump Paul and I called a home.

As soon as I stepped inside, the throb and the anxiety quickened. It was like a bass drum getting frantic. Fruit flies bobbed in the kitchen. I bade them good day.

I got out my laptop from the backpack and went stumbling into my room. I collapsed at my desk. I had paid $600 for the desk. I’d gotten a number of furnishings in ’02 when I moved into Manhattan for a year. The days of wine and poses, long ago.

What is this—2005?

It’s ’06, kemo sabe. Get a grip. Bush is the president. War in Iraq. The terror alert is at orange. Things hunky-dory in general.

Katrina—remember? The toilets in Biloxi were destroyed. The Grand lay smashed on the coast. The Isle of Capri disappeared. No one ever saw the thing again. It was like a fulfillment: God’s vengeance upon the casinos. A beautiful sight!

Yeah, I remember that day. I’d been playing poker compulsively on the Internet, feeling rather spavined, and losing. They had all those warnings on the news, predictions of where it would strike. The ominousness was terrific. I was stretched out on the futon and played through the night, hoping for something tremendous.

The laptop had finished booting up. I rose from my chair, and I paced. Dust motes were swarming the air. My bed was disheveled, of course. I sat on the mattress.

I yawned. I had to live life differently. You must, boy, you must. These thoughts just hung in my head: must, must. They were in there, all right. I moved to the desk, reinstalled the poker software, began another day in the life.

DH: This is my second post on DM’s How to Read the Air. Perhaps by the time that I finish this survey, I’ll have figured out what that great title means. You write about a book several times because you are peeling the onion. But there has to be an onion to peel. The praise is in the treatment, the attention that the book receives. Saying “I loved this book!” is silly. Talk it up. Books are the malls (agoras, if you prefer) of a literate society. When the mail packet from England arrived in NY harbor with the latest installment of the new Dickens serial, don’t imagine that the eager readers who snapped it up just read the content and then sat on their asses. They talked about it. And because the plot unfurled like a slow growing vine, everybody was on the same page when they talked about it.

And I think that was part of the point of lengthy Victorian novels. Their book talk was as measured out as the pacing that CD decided on for his storytelling. Our community has missed out on that. And don’t say that TV series perform that function. Even the most sophisticated series, most likely written by a committee, granted, of the talented…is trite in comparison to what Dickens could do with Little Dorrit in 1855. You may not think that’s so. But you’ve been listening to DM’s voice being watered down for your consumption for one hundred and fifty-five years. You have to restore Dicken’s words to the effect that they had on impact two centuries ago when every word that he wrote was fresh.

The central topic of How to Read the Air is marriage. And that’s my hope for the commercial success of this novel. Most readers won’t find the background material that helps explain the dysfunctional ticking of that marriage all that interesting. It’s my guess that DM has some issues that he is working out in this story. I wish he would forget about that

It’s wonderfully ironic that when Jonas and Angela realize that they are having some growing issues with their relationship, their half-thought out solution is to get married. But Jonas and Angela, as young adults, are always acting out the roles that they think they are supposed to play. This is very Updike of them. Read John Updike The Early Stories which is a blueprint of martial role-playing.

I greatly appreciated DM’s fine remark that you have to be in a relationship to understand that locations can become “haunted” (my word) with decisive emotional events that have taken place there. The writer is talking about the couple’s home. And aren’t there places in your own home, in my case one is the end of a cabinet in the dining room, where you will never forget what was said there? The atmosphere lingers, like a faint smoke or an odd feint of light.

DM’s remark is interesting enough. But then he points out that Jonas and Angela have a studio apartment. The small living space becomes emotionally charged with their conversations. No wonder Angela and Jonas begin a long dance of finding excuses to be out of the apartment. Their conversations at home become an electrically charged field that either repels or attracts the spouses as if they were moths. The reader greatly looks forward to eavesdropping on these conversations. DM is a master at dialogue with shadows.

But there have to be characters that can cast a shadow. My greatest confidence in Dinaw Megestu as a author is that he can write characters. Angela is a bit easier to understand. She’s had an insecure family background. Now she is a young lawyer at a white shoe firm. She’s  anxious to make it and wants a stable marriage as part of a rock solid foundation on the anthill of Manhattan.

Jonas is the puzzle and DM’s great character creation. He has not been swallowed by the whale so much as it seems as if he is trying to swallow one. He’s drowning in adult commitments that he is not ready to make. Emotionally. he’s a child who doesn’t want to tell the truth, or stand out, or get emotional. Jonas wants to distill all the emotional terror of life into a fine nectar or subtle Bordeaux that can be sipped, appreciated as if he was a connoisseur of adulthood.

That doesn’t work for Angela. She wants the five year plan to material and martial success. She wants a life trajectory that will give her confidence that the walls won’t come tumbling down.

The great DM lobs volleys of conversational shots into this scenario as if he he were an authorial Roger Federer. It’s martial tennis without any nets or balls. I’ll try to sum up what I think about How to Read the Air in one last shot some other time.

The photograph to the left (which has been cropped and can be clicked to view the full image) is one reason. I took it on 31st Street off Fifth Avenue looking north one oh-so-mysterioso night around midnight…an hour in town from Texas…a spring rain having swept through like drum brushes only moments before…still cool enough for some manhole steam, just warm enough to bring out a few optimistic short skirts and frilly dresses. God love those.

I’d like to think it captures some of the majestic monstrosity of Manhattan, which Kurt Vonnegut called Skyscraper National Park, but it’s really just an impulse shot taken in a moment of loneliness, like a lamb in a large country, as my minister father would’ve said.

Of course, everyone adores and worships New York — when we’re not hating it. But I’ve found in my wanderings that what makes a great world city, whether it’s Rome or Rio, Buenos Aires or Berlin, is often not the grandeur or the big picture stuff that gets written about and photographed endlessly; it’s the smaller, quiet things that we personally take away and make our own.

I remember once in Beijing, with literally millions of people all around, I chanced to see an old man leaned up against a wall. He grabbed a tiny frog from off the pavement — and Lord knows how that frog came to be there just then. He put it in his mouth and smiled at me. Then he opened his mouth and let the frog go. Everything else I saw there lives in the shadow of that one scene. The eye contact. The feel of that frog in my mouth. The puzzle of its being there.

Cities are puzzles — and the world’s greatest cities are revealed in the little details and passing moments. The smell of the Union Square subway station — the remnant of a Cuban cigar left smoldering on a curb — they’re part of the puzzle that’s New York for me. But here now are the five essential things that make Manhattan worth coming back to in my mind.

  1. High on my list of favorites is the rightfully famous Carnegie Deli on 7th Avenue at 55th Street. This is a Midtown establishment that still delivers far beyond any tourist district standard. It has that old authentic deli atmosphere — lots of shouting and jostling, and no question that your sandwich is being prepared by human hands right on the spot. And what sandwiches! The first pastrami I ordered from there, I literally had to sit on in the bag, just to crush it down to eat without dislocating my jaw. They also do knishes, matzo ball soup, and pickles that make your eyes water. And they do good shouting, which I appreciate. But their pastrami sandwiches are simply in a class all their own.

  2. With so much great art to see in the city, whether on the acres of museum walls or the galleries of Chelsea — wherever — it seems sort of criminal to return time again to work I know well, but I can’t help it. Whenever I’m in town for a few days, I always make a pilgrimage to the Guggenheim to experience again Kandinsky’s watercolors. Seeing them close up somehow helps prepare my mind for other art and new visions. I get tuned in again to the synchronicities of the city.

    Once, coming out of a reading, with snow falling, a crazy Jamaican Rasta man cab driver pulled over for me. He had my book on his front seat.

    One late summer day on the steps of the Museum of Natural History, I was for some reason discussing with a female friend who I was trying to bed at the time, Jane Fonda’s curious insistence on portraying non-penetrative sex in the film Coming Home with Jon Voight, and how disappointed she was in researching quadriplegics to find a man whose paralysis triggered four hour erections — when who should I literally collide with but Jon Voight. What are the chances? An obscure, unlikely conversational topic, a metropolis of millions — and there’s Jon — right up in my grill (and he’s a big guy to run into).

    Kandinsky gets me synched with the coincidental magic of the place, so that I’m loose and ready when, for instance, filming rotisserie chickens spinning and spitting fat in a window on First Avenue, I suddenly turn to meet an old neighbor from College Avenue in Oakland. That kind of thing could be upsetting if unprepared psychically — especially since he did jail time and I walked.

  3. New York is of course a great city of sound — often so much so that you stop listening — and shut down. But then there are those lovely lulls in the rhythm when you momentarily hear deep into the machinery of the whole carnival, and you wake up. One of my favorite sounds in the entire world is the sensual percussion of Puerto Rican girls in very high heels click-clocking between the traffics of the traffic. I have a special admiration for their ability to outright sprint on knifepoint heels to hail a cab or catch a bus-and to never lose their composure or their balance. They are some of the hardest ass females I’ve ever encountered  — yet they are the most sincerely gracious and thankful if you hold a door open for them or pick up a package that’s been dropped. One thing they for sure don’t teach the nice white private school babes from Connecticut is how to say a simple thank-you to a stranger. Those girls just grow up to be editors for Simon & Schuster. Give me a Puerto Rican shoe store chick a long way from the Sarah Lawrence degree and the family house in the Hamptons. There will be a lot more blood in her heart and a musical smack and crackle in her walk. You can fool people with a cashmere sweater and an Upper Westside apartment. You can’t fool music — and a New York City sidewalk is where some of the most fundamental music in life is made.

  4. Growing up in a religious family, I was steadfastly steered into not causing trouble — which is of course why from an early age I’ve often felt obliged to promote whatever commotion I can. Fortunately, I’ve learned a few lessons and have structured my perversity in ever more subtle ways (police beatings will do that to you). One little form of discord I particularly enjoy stimulating concerns the chess players in Central Park.

    I don’t play a good game of chess, but I don’t play a bad game either. And my real game is finding out a bit more about who’s playing at any given time. I like to target those older Jewish guys who take it very seriously, especially the ones who insist on playing without their shirts on come the warmer weather. They may beat me — but by the time they have, I know a lot about their style and what gets their goat. Then, when they’re playing amongst themselves, I start to kibitz and lurk around, occasionally flashing some bills. It’s the “betting” money I’m holding, you see. And I always have some names from the local chess clubs to throw around.

    While they were fixated on whipping my ass, I found out the names of their kids and where they grew up. They wouldn’t remember if I was left or right handed — but I can almost tell their blood pressure. They know I can run an opening gambit. They see the money. They hear names from the city chess scene they’re familiar with. Man, you should see how I can escalate a friendly game between old friends into a pitched battle. These old-timers are so inherently competitive, behind their friendly façades, it doesn’t take much to move them like pieces on a board. Chess? I have my own kind in New York. I can make a jeweler or a tailor at a glance. If you were in retail or sales, I need five minutes to nail the main industry. Food or hospitality? Three. Wholesalers just give it up. It doesn’t take much to make these guys really believe there’s book made on them, and suddenly a quiet game (that actually wasn’t very quiet at all) can become a contest of wills and spirit that makes a sweet counterpoint to the gentle clip-clopping of the carriage horse hooves and the tinkling of the merry-go-round. Check mate.

    Someone really into the grift once told me, “The secret is always making the other party think they’ve won.” He lives in Belize now and isn’t coming back stateside any time soon, but I like applying that good advice in humbler, sillier ways. There’s twisted fun in manipulating people who think they’re smarter than you, when they don’t even know what you’re doing. A little show of cred, a flash of real money, and some research — that’s still the essence of every scam. It’s just a question of scale and intent on return. Me, I like to see proud, puffed up old men have punch ups over chessboards, not knowing how the game got away from them.

  5. If I sickly stir up some heated feelings amongst arrogant old farts, I do my atonement by supporting the city’s very fine musicians, at what are still some of the greatest clubs in the world — for jazz, anyway. I like the Lenox Lounge in Harlem and the Zinc Bar in the Village (they moved from their wonderful but very small quarters on Houston Street to great premises at 82 West 3rd Street, between Thompson and Sullivan).

    The Lenox Lounge is at 288 Lenox Avenue, or Malcolm X Boulevard at 124th and 125th. There’s a lot of history in this venue, and a lot of musical life still going down. At the Zinc Bar, you can hear phenomenal talents like Cidinho Teixeria, the Brazilian pianist, who’s a get-the-party-started-no-prisoners player if there ever was one. If you don’t have fun listening to him, better check that pulse.

    Even more commercial, somewhat cynical clubs like the Blue Note at 131 West 3rd Street or the Iridium at 1650 Broadway in Times Square, are still great places to really hear music — and they continue to draw rich talent.

    New venues keep popping up, thankfully. Such is the nature of live music. But you can’t go past B.B. King’s joint on 42nd Street. Some rather important people have a way of appearing there — and James Brown was on the way to that door when he died. We should all have such a good destination in mind when the sand’s running down.

    On my last visit, I realized, while doing book interviews, that Irma Thomas the Queen of New Orleans was playing. Six bourbons down, the latest interview done, I charged the box office. “I have to see her. I must be right down front.”

    I was told, “I’m sorry sir, we’re all sold out.”

    “You don’t understand,” I said. “I have only two weeks to live. I know all her lyrics. This is a chance for you to gain some karma credit.”

    I got my seat. Right down front. And the security dudes were very kind when I attempted to take the stage. Some of my tablemates from Westchester County were a little surprised at my doings — but that’s because they didn’t know the songs.

    The girl on the ticket desk who I’d spun the yarn to get in spotted me on the way out. “Two weeks to live, huh?”

    “Maybe three now,” I said. “Thanks.”

    “Well, you told the truth about knowing all the songs,” she said. “We heard you from here.”

    “This is New York,” I said. “If we don’t remind ourselves we’ll forget.”

    “You’re not from New York,” she said, noticing my accent.

    “Perhaps not,” I replied. “That’s why I know I’m here now.”

I have never met Bill Clegg, but we seem to have a lot in common. I learned in his new memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, that we’re both white people who come from dysfunctional families in rural towns who nursed dreams of getting out. We both moved to NYC after attending uncool colleges, with no plan other than to “become something.” We both became literary agents, falling into a career we seemed thrillingly, finally suited for. We both love photography, and Bill Eggleston in particular. We’re both single and into dudes. We both had problems with painful urination as children and we both have abused illicit substances with abandon. For me, it was Vicodin — or any fun pill I could get my hands on. For Bill, it was alcohol and crack.

Working in Manhattan can be an exciting, thrilling experience, but it doesn’t have to be. For the first year of my legitimate-office-job-having life, I worked in a building entrenched in a cozy block of 7th Avenue, spitting distance from two of the most impressively banal landmarks in this city: Times Square and Macy’s. Now, things can get pretty hectic in busy digital media what with the constant barrage of emails, IMs, phone calls, and that woman from accounting shrilly dictating lists of numbers into her speaker phone. I soon learned, therefore, how valuable it was for the mental health of any office worker to unwinch one’s shoulders from their hunched slump, peer away from the computer screen, and make one’s way out into the city.

I highly recommend an afternoon stroll through the western gutter of Midtown Manhattan to anyone who complains that the city has gotten too gentrified, or fancy, or clean, or pleasant. Nothing quite lifts the spirits like battling one’s way down a narrow sidewalk shrouded in complete darkness at 3 pm on a summer afternoon. I took a walk like this during my lunch break on my last day at my job, and maybe this was why everything seemed already tinged with nostalgia, why the dim streets seemed particularly elegiac. How I would miss spending my days here!

People are friendly in this neighborhood – from the delivery men saying “hello” by tapping gently at your legs with their overloaded dollies or bolts of fabric, nudging you like cordial goats, to the slow-moving herds of tourists who envelop you in their fanny-packed midst, sweeping you inexorably towards the luminescent glow of the Applebee’s in Times Square. Seven-foot-tall teenagers stalk by with modeling portfolios tucked under their arms, directing their doe-eyed gaze at you in what might be welcoming greeting, but also could just be hunger. Every time you exit your building or turn a corner, rest assured you will run smack dab into someone, perhaps even someone (as happened to me on this particular day) who will take hold of your arm and forcibly shove you out of the way (of danger, I assume). Plus, there is a cornucopia of interesting lunchtime options, representative of the breadth of New York’s international cuisine: from salads and sandwiches to sandwiches and salads. The brave of heart may choose to venture down Board-of-Health-defying alleyways marked with handmade signs promising cheap tamales or glatt kosher falafel; the iron of stomach can graze on the urine-yellow halal meat offered up by the street vendors.

Meander a little further west, preferably down 40th street, flanked by the Port Authority bus terminal on one side and the local parole board office on the other, towards the peep shows, and keep your eyes peeled for the authentically “gritty” characters this city still has to offer. There – a stumbling fellow with a face like gristle leers openly, calls out in a nonsense language something I can only assume means, Hullo, friend! There – a man peeing in a doorway looks up and grins, waggling his flaccid member in cheerful greeting. Hullo!

I came to find that after my lunchtime strolls it was largely a relief to make my way back towards the office building. What a relief to sink back into that office chair, though it seems to be ergonomically designed to make me slouch – how tranquil the office seems after the chaos of the street. The soothing hum of phones ringing, the quiet clatter of web copy being typed into ancient computers, the mellifluous singsong of the woman from accounting dictating numbers into her speaker phone. And yet, there’s something wonderful, I mean really wonderful, about such a dose of chaos.

Now I work in the Conde Nast building, where the hallways seethe with the seamy lights of Times Square. I don’t get back to the old neighborhood much anymore. It sounds nutty, but I actually really do miss it in all its filth and bustle. Maybe one of these days I should make the 5-block trek down to the Garment District and watch someone peeing in an alley just for old time’s sake. After all, I don’t want to become one of those office drones who only leaves the building to go to Starbucks, with that baleful cry, “Anyone want anything from the outside world?” Because you know what? I do want something from the outside world. And it’s not a latte.

Well, not just a latte, anyway.