Metropolitan diary

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.

“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.

“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.

“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”

“And what difference does that make?”

Over the weekend I was taking a quiet walk through my Lower East Side neighborhood when suddenly I felt a sharp, hot sting on the side of my neck. I slapped my hand to my neck then looked at it to see a smear of blood; as my arm dropped, a small metal pellet, what I recognized as a BB, fell to the ground from the crook of my elbow. Looking up to see the source of the gun, I saw about thirty yards away from me and through a few trees a group of young men, looking at me and laughing, though I saw no gun. Bleeding and somewhat shaken, I turned to go home and apply a dab of Neosporin and a Band-Aid to where I’d been hit.

I’ve been living in New York long enough to develop a … well, a thick skin is  obviously the metaphor du jour. But if I’ve been obsessing here just a bit about the pleasures of an earlier day, perhaps events like this are the reason. I’m not fool enough to suggest that such things and much worse haven’t happened since time began (and continue to do so now), but as Yossarian pointed out to Clevinger in Catch-22, that’s small comfort.

I have in my bookshelves a well-thumbed-because-purchased-used copy of Essays of E.B. White, and within that collection is his very popular essay, Here Is New York, written in 1948 and available as a popular, elegantly produced souvenir in most New York bookstores. In 1977, though, White himself looked back at that essay:

The city I described has disappeared, and another city has emerged in its place — one that I’m not familiar with. But I remember the former one, with longing and with love. … The last time I visited New York, it seemed to have suffered a personality change, as though it had a brain tumor as yet undetected.

And, I think, listening to New York congratulate itself so often, the tumor is growing.

A toast to … corona lit

Cafe Katja.

This week I gingerly returned to the fray with an update on what I’m doing these days and, more importantly, what my wife is doing these days.

While the light at the end of the tunnel still appears as a pinprick at the end of the near-bottomless abyss, some thoughts have been turning to the post-pandemic world — what its art will look like, particularly, how the theatre and the plastic arts and music will ultimately respond to this experience. Nothing fills me with more dread than this. Every creative writing MFA candidate has no doubt already started their novel or, more likely, their “thematically related cycle of short stories,” and I shudder at the thought of reading about wan, isolated individuals engaging in internal monologues or maudlin dialogues with spouses, family, and friends, perhaps with Central Park or western Connecticut in the background. In truth, the only genuine chronicler of these times would need to combine the nihilistic irony of a Robert Musil with the caustic misanthropy of a Louis-Ferdinand Céline to give us a truly accurate picture of the age. I’m not holding my breath. (On the other hand, perhaps the powers-that-be will finally outlaw talking, so there’s always that silver lining.)

Ordinarily I’d be raising my glass for the end of the week at Cafe Katja, but for the past several weeks it’s been closed. It still is. But I’m glad to report that Erwin Schröttner and Andrew Chase have decided to unshutter the place for pickup and delivery beginning yesterday, so tonight I’ll be raising my glass of zweigelt along with a proper schnitzel or bratwurst. Their menu is available here; if you’re in the neighborhood, I do hope that you’ll partake.

Until next week.

 

Butterflies in captivity

Morton Feldman once described his monumental Triadic Memories as “the biggest butterfly in captivity.” My lovely wife Marilyn Nonken recorded it several years ago for Mode Records, so it seemed appropriate for the Washington Post‘s Michael Andor Brodeur to ask her for her opinion on what Feldman’s music might mean to us during the current scare, when we’re all in some kind of captivity:

For Nonken, the power of Feldman’s music comes from the tension he generates between regularity and instability (sound familiar?), and his reluctance to suggest narrative through “artificial resolution.”

“The drama,” she says over Zoom, “is how is that instability going to manifest itself? When is it going to rupture? How is it going to rupture?” Indeed, you can be 80 minutes into a Feldman piece before something happens, in the traditional sense of things happening. Nonken compares the journey to a long hike that ends at a grand vista. …

“The monotony of these days,” Nonken says, “day in and day out, there’s a repetitiveness. We’re waiting for something to happen and we’re not quite sure what it is. Small details take on incredible significance.”

Mode will release her and Stephen Marotto’s performance of Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field later this year. In the meantime, you can read all of the Washington Post story — which also includes interviews with Marotto and other seasoned Feldman aficianadoes — here.

Air of melancholy

It’s been nearly two months since I’ve posted here — I suppose that the spirit is willing, but the flesh weak, especially working all day from home with the kids in what is laughingly called “school” and the better half also at work all day in a 1,200-square-foot space on the Lower East Side. Instead, in what little spare time remains, I’ve been amusing myself as I’ve had to. In a sense, I suppose, we all need some kind of escape from the stresses and tensions of the period.

In New York, this isn’t easy at the best of times, but I’ve tried. I’ve gotten a lot of reading done on the weekends. Catch-22 remains perhaps more relevant than ever (there’s more than one way to “raise the number of combat missions”; a pandemic and enforced isolation are two); Mark Twain remains a comfort as well, with Pudd’nhead Wilson in the outbox and A Tramp Abroad on the bedside table (nothing like late Twain to confirm one’s cynicism about the culture and the race); Ed Berlin’s Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History and Rudi Blesh & Harriet Janis’s They All Played Ragtime fill out a little knowledge about a music that I’ve come to love even more, even though it’s over a century old, in 2020.

The friendly postman brought around two CDs from the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra the other day — both fine recordings. The PRO Finally Plays the Entertainer is a collection of band arrangements of tunes by the big three (Joplin, Lamb, and Scott — and the package design by Chris Ware is splendid), but the most surprising pleasure was From Barrelhouse to Broadway, a collection of songs by the great Joe Jordan, who is very new to me. (At the end of this post you’ll find “The Whippoorwill Dance” for your listening pleasure.) I find in the best ragtime a quiet, elegant air of melancholy that suits my constitution well.

For some reason this early American music has captured the affection of several comics artists. Apart from Ware mentioned above, Robert Armstrong and R. Crumb are also smitten by these tunes (I’ve also been listening to a bit of the East River String Band, with whom Crumb has often sit in). Germany’s Christoph Mueller is fond of the period, though I’m not sure if he’s an enthusiast for the music; Mr. Mueller recently contributed a cover called “Shelter in Place” to The New Yorker, his first. Mueller is a post-Crumb artist and this, in an odd way, is an appropriate accompaniment to Crumb’s own “Short History of America.” Although the immediate context is the coronavirus, of course, I think Mueller’s evocation of the isolation of the individual and the isolation of nature in large cities speaks to a much broader solitude and loneliness that transcends the immediate moment. At the moment, Mueller is completing the artwork for the 39th issue of Mineshaft, due later this year. (I hope I don’t have to remind you to subscribe to this, America’s most indispensable magazine.) Mueller spoke with the New Yorker‘s art editor Françoise Mouly about “Shelter in Place” here.

I should also mention that among my pandemic reading was Hillary Chute’s recent history of contemporary comics, Why Comics?, highly recommended.

Finally, my Google searches have been taking me recently to the environs of Dublin, New Hampshire, the home of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. When I glance out of my window now, I often see a facsimile of Mueller’s perspective; how much I’d rather see Dublin. There’s a photo below, and here’s “The Whippoorwill Dance,” as promised, performed by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra’s maestro Rick Benjamin. I hope to kick up the pace here soon and write a little more about all of this. Until then, save me a place in Dublin.

Town center of Dublin, New Hampshire.

A toast to … misanthropy

Cafe Katja.

Well, folks, for the past 58 years I’ve been self-isolating from most of the rest of the human race and expressed both pessimism and cynicism about the race itself. Welcome to my world. I’m not necessarily delighted to be proven right, but these days I’ll take what I can get.

During these home-bound days, I’m re-reading a few of the books that led me to these conclusions: “comfort fiction,” let’s call it. Here are only three that I highly recommend:

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift: By the end of Swift’s novel, Gulliver is self-isolating from human stupidity too. It’s an extreme but, once you get to the end, understandable conclusion.

The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek: During World War I, Hasek’s simpleton Svejk demonstrates that you can easily prove the incompetence and stupidity of your leaders by doing exactly what they tell you to do.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: More than an anti-war novel, it’s an anti-stupidity novel, offering only the thinnest of hopes at the end (though hope, I believe, it is).

Alas in these trying times, Cafe Katja is closed for regular business, so you won’t find me at the bar there this afternoon. But fortunately for all of us, the owners have instituted a take-out and delivery service so your Austrian food needs can be met during this difficult disruption. Follow their Instagram feed for details. I also recommend that you help out the staff at Katja by tiding them over until the doors can formally open again.

Until next time, prost! The liquor stores will remain open indefinitely (and, I understand, are doing just fine).