I am on the 2 train headed to Madison Square Garden. I have Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. It’s a hard copy so I can’t squeeze it into my pocket. I have to hold it proudly, which I do. It is a brilliant book about the human spirit. Last week, I attended a conversation between Ward and Paul Holdengrabber at the New York Public Library. Ward finds Faulkner inspiring. Holdengrabber introduced Faulkner’s Noble Prize Acceptance Speech as a topic of discussion.
“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
Last night, I attended Politics As Story, a discussion between Tony Kushner and Paul Auster. Auster wasn’t there. I arrived late (no excuse) so I don’t know where he was. But it was May 5th, my mother’s birthday, Cinco de Mayo, so maybe Auster was drunk, with plastic beads and sorority sisters strung around his neck, their vaginas holding him by the throat, forcing him to pontificate on what it means to be a writer in Brooklyn these days. Or maybe he wasn’t at my mother’s birthday party, but celebrating Cinco de Mayo in the way American beer company’s have taught Americans to celebrate Cinco de Mayo so he was overstuffed on Tostitos and guacamole or vomiting Corona in an alley, or nursing a brain freeze caused by drinking his frozen margarita too fast.
Kushner didn’t seem bothered by Auster’s absence. Maybe it was because he was talking to a handsome acolyte, no doubt a genius in his own right, who, from where I stood at the back of the theater appeared to be a bearded Adrian Brody, a divine looking man. I didn’t know the context of a third of Kushner’s references (how does one man fit so much beneath a head of curls?) and I started to get that ugly chip on my shoulder that I sat in the back of school classrooms with because some things you can’t rid yourself of. Then Kushner talked about Steven Spielberg and the work they’ve done on a soon to be released film about Abraham Lincoln and I recalled the bootleg VHS tape of E.T. that my uncle brought home and I watched with my brothers and cousins when I was seven. I miss my brothers, my cousins. Most of them have hair like Kushner.
Kushner also talked of the space where imagination and the world collide, the relationship between fact and fiction, historical fiction and historicity. I know historicity. For example, I am going to watch the Knicks play the Miami Heat instead of going to listen to Salman Rushdie talk with Gary Shteyngart at Pen’s Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture. It’s not my fault. At the last minute, a friend offered me 2 free tickets to the game. Who am I to say no? There are at least a dozen people I want to take. Some of them are dead. Some I feel bad about not asking. Auster has proven to be unreliable. My wife couldn’t make it.
(Dear Pen community, Mr. Rushdie and Mr. Shteyngart: I apologize for missing the event. In my defense, I loved the Knicks long before I met Midnight’s Children while living in a boarding house in Bedford Stuyvesant a month before the Twin Towers came crashing to the ground. In fact, in the dark of the park down the street from my childhood home, I was a Knick, although some mistook me for a boy playing one on one with figments of his imagination, shadows, characters he named and talked aloud with.)
I invited Josh Furst to the game. He is the author of The Savage Café and Short People, a Knicks fan, and a Pen member but he is mostly an astute, critical and subversive voice fighting against the beast that is the New York publishing scene. There he is, smoking a rolled cigarette while leaning against a NYPD police car outside of Madison Square Garden. He wears cowboy boots, sunglasses, and a Knicks warm-up from a decade ago. We smoke a cigarette together, walk into the Madison Square Garden. He is playing hooky from a poetry reading in Queens.
Our seats are on the ceiling. Branford Marsalis plays the national anthem. The lights dim. The lights rise. The players are announced. We sit amidst righteous drag queens, sages confounded by this world, temporal tempests and tricksters, a thousand cockroaches who shout down to the players about what they should and shouldn’t do. There is a celibate elephant, a snowman in a bathing suit, girls giggling, a man with pimples as big as toes on his nose and shoulders; calliopes; manifestos, eaters of french-fries, pints of ice cream, hot dogs and popcorn. Who better to see a game with? I see the children on the slide in the blackness of the park where my friend Jervis died and Eddie strangled himself with police tape. We are all boys of balls, boys of breaching, boys of broken bicycles, broken windows, straddlers of absence and presence, our hearts dragging our families, our cages and crowns behind.
“He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”
The Knicks win! Furst and I walk from Madison Square Garden to The Standard for Pen’s 90th Birthday Party. There are scantily clad cocktail servers, men in ties and sport coats. Furst and I are under-dressed. Rushdie is there. Its good to see that he’s taken my absence in stride. Once again, Auster is nowhere to be found. Paul Morris is at the party. Its great to see him. Chuck Leung is also at the party. Its great to see him too. He used to work at Pen. Chuck and I’ve played basketball together. He’s a good player, moves with good rhythm. Furst and I tell him about the game.
“…when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.”
Former presidents of Pen take turns reading the work of writers they love. Langston Hughes is read. Auden is read. Furst and I escape to The Standard’s roof for a quick cigarette with one of the servers. I never get to see a view of New York like this, eye to eye with its institutions and grand buildings.
We return to the party. Mailer is read. Faulkner is read.
I take a cab with Furst and Leung to Cooper Union for Pen’s after party. I eat my share of hors d’oeuvres. I’ve given up on Auster, so I help myself to his share as well. Paul Morris introduces Furst and I to Steve Isenberg, the Executive Director of Pen. We tell him about the Knicks. He is a Knicks fan. He was at Oxford with Bill Bradley. He tells us that he wants to find ways to get more young people, writers like us, involved in Pen. For a moment, I don’t know who he’s talking about. I am back at the park, on the basketball court, the moon a spotlight on the rusted rim. I dribble. My face is smeared with dirt and sweat. “I am that angry and lonely child of always.”
Furst pays for a cab back to Brooklyn. I thank him. I am broke, but not broke. I get out of the cab at the corner of Nostrand and St. Marks. I walk home. I enter the apartment building, climb the stairs. My wife is asleep in bed. I want to wake her and make love. My son is asleep in his crib. I watch him breathe. I want to climb in beside him and tell him about my day, a beautiful day.