From an Interlude, Incompletely

guylandSanford Gwynn woke up in the drainage ditch behind the Nassau County Jail. It was still quite early, the grove of trees was lush and quiet, and the sky was clear and just beginning to draw a tint of pink.

Mr. Gwynn was sprawled in a nearly symmetrical star shape, as though he had tried to make a snowman in the grass. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that he had tried. But there he was, arms spread wide and his legs spread open, and after a few moments, Mr. Gwynn accidentally spit on himself.

He puffed his lips into an O shape, and exhaled loudly. He opened his eyes slowly, and croaked a groan of relief that it was not yet bright and very quiet.

For a moment, he wondered what had stirred him.

Then, with great care, he propped himself up on his elbows and tried to orient his head perpendicular to the ground. After about 30 seconds, he succeeded.

He looked down at himself. Remarkably, at least to his sore eyes, things were well sorted. There were no embarrassing stains, yawning tears or unfamiliar articles. His black wool pants were thoroughly wrinkled and there was dust of some sort on his left knee, but they were in one piece. His white shirt was creased in a fascinating geometric pattern of cascading spindly moraines. And his jacket?

Well, he wasn’t sure where his jacket was. And he noticed he had only one shoe. But he could see pants and he could see a shirt. And he still had his socks.

Mr. Gwynn totted up these victories with no small amount of satisfaction. He sighed again. And with careful exertion pushed himself up into a sitting position.

After a moment, he said, “Not so bad,” to no one.

As he sat, his head slowly drooped downward, tilting his field of vision from the jail and its parking lot, which was a picture of stolid, civic serenity, to the patch of ground between his legs. He gazed at the grass and the dirt and at a few small pieces of trash, a bottle cap, a scrap of paper and a toy wedding ring.

A few minutes later, he started out of his trance and slowly looked up again. Trees, scrub and jail, everything was still quiet. He thought about what to do, and he decided that he should get up and get something to eat.

He let his body unfold back into the grass. His head smacked into something. Bemused, he twisted his body and looked down where his head had been. It was a shoe. After a beat he recognized it as his shoe.

He smiled a smile of experienced accomplishment.

Then, something made him glance up. A few inches away from his face was his jacket, hanging from a low-hanging branch.

He untwisted himself and laid back down again, grinning more broadly than before.

It was nearly 9 by the time Mr. Gwynn emerged from the grove, sauntered up Packwood to the newsstand, bought a few newspapers and settled into a stool at Mr. Kafeer’s diner.

Mr. Kafeer was short, smoothly bald and robustly fit. Few people in Mineola knew it, but Mr. Kafeer loved to exercise. And he would occasionally run in place in front of the broad grill in his kitchen, though he was careful to keep this activity out of view of his customers.

He was well-acquainted with Mr. Gwynn. That morning, he had seen Mr. Gwynn coming a long way up the street. As Mr. Gwynn walked closer, his hair matted and his shirttails untucked, Mr. Kafeer was distracted by a thorough, scathing judgment of the dissipated habits of 20-something American men.

They drank too much. They smoked too much. Never mind that Mr. Kafeer was a devout muslim; he was possessed with the comprehensive tolerance of a businessman. Still, Mr. Kafeer could talk all day about his customers and never come up with the name of a young man who met his approval.

But Mr. Kafeer’s tolerance was also mingled with the cautious fear and pragmatism of an immigrant. He had first come to America in 1900, literally stepping off the boat onto Ellis Island. Within days he had become enamored, almost dreamy, with the polyglot chaos of the streets. But he also was industrious, and soon ingratiated himself with the small, moneyed knot of Levantine elders who noodled around Lower Manhattan.

It took Mr. Kafeer a month to set up his own business, a lunch counter at the back of a drug store owned by a crusty Syrian. Mr. Kafeer believed he had nailed the American dream.

A month after that, it was looted, with unapologetic irony, by an anti-Italian mob.

Undeterred, he tried again. This time, he opened a kebab stand in a Jewish neighborhood a good, long walk from downtown, and despite the Zionist rumblings and the occasional cross looks, he made out like a bandit. His neighbors came to trust him, and a few even respected him.

After a year and a half, an anti-Jewish mob took his cart and pitched it in the East River.

As he watched his kebabs float downriver, Mr. Kafeer dusted himself off. He walked to Penn Station, bought a ticket on the Long Island Railroad and stepped off the train in Mineola, where there were few Italians or Jews and only one Moroccan, himself.

That was 12 years ago.   

Mr. Gwynn shuffled toward the front door of the diner, kicked it accidentally as he fumbled with the handle and finally pushed his way in with a boozy sigh.

Mr. Kafeer swallowed his disgust.

“Ahh, Sayyid Gwynn,” he said with hollow enthusiasm.

Mr. Gwynn gave a polite nod. He did not know Mr. Kafeer’s name, even though he had accepted thousands of plates from his hand, even though the word was written on above the windows on the front of the building.

“You will be wanting the eggs and the toast,” Mr. Kafeer said.

Mr. Gwynn nodded again, sat down and laid the day’s papers on the counter. Mr. Kafeer retreated to his kitchen.

For all his faults, his self-indulgent personality and revolting habits, Mr. Gwynn at least had currency. That is to say, he read several newspapers every day, hangovers notwithstanding, and could be a competent partner in conversation about the day’s events.

He had his favorite newspapers, of course, but in fact, he was fairly tolerant when it came to quality. He could be counted on to buy one of the big papers, The Times or The Tribune, but he did not share the owly judgment of his colleagues — who were quick to hoot at busted headlines and purple writing — when it came to the odd measures and obscure flags of smaller circulations.

Mr. Gwynn approached a newsstand like a pilgrim, studying the front pages with penitent seriousness even before he could make out the letters. Typically, he would buy two or three. Always, he paid with a bill and waved away the change with a half-audible, “Keep it.”

The sight of stacks of grubby newsprint, crowned by rocks, lumps of iron and other heavy oddments, seemed to clear his mind, tamp down the throbbing in his head and the hot nausea in his throat. Even on the mornings after particularly extreme benders, Mr. Gwynn was in a cafe somewhere with coffee and a newspaper by about 9 in the morning. Ten, at least.

O.K. Maybe 11.

But today, it was relatively early and Mr. Gwynn had a full head of curiosity brewing. He smoothed the papers with his hand. The New York Times was on top. His eyes scanned hungrily for the lede article. His eyes caught the letters “T.R.,” and he felt a tingle of joy.

Ahh, the Colonel, he thought, referring to the former president, Theodore Roosevelt, who had been out of office but nearly always in the news since 1908.

Please, Mr. Gwynn begged to no one in particular, let him have made another cantankerously ridiculous speech.

Under the headline ‘IF PERKINS GOES, I’LL GO, TOO’ — T.R., an article related the Colonel’s arrival from his nearly-ill-fated Amazonian expedition. The papers had said that he looked like death in May when he stumbled out of the jungle, and the Colonel had had a violent attack of malaria, more severe than any he had in South America, only a week before.

But the teeth-snapping Roosevelt vigor, in the form of a belligerent tangle with reporters and the release of a long prepared statement, was fairly pulsing through the newswires.

What the Colonel was most exercised about was the administration’s recent offer of $25 million to the government of Colombia, compensation for it lost when the United States, prodded with muscular diplomacy by the Colonel, had built the Panama Canal. But most reporters led with a building rift in the Progressive Party, which the Colonel had custom-made for an attempt to retake the White House in 1912.

Mr. Gwynn began to read with relish — “If they read George Perkins out of the party,” a combative Colonel rasped, referring to the former J. P. Morgan toady and current Progressive functionary, “they will have to read me out, too.”

Gwynn snorted.

And this, in its way, seemed to announced Filo Phinney, who stepped out of the white summer light into the diner. He went directly to the counter, asked for a coffee and then glanced around the room. His eyes quickly alighted on Mr. Gwynn, and once he had his beer he walked over and stood next to where Mr. Gwynn was slouched.

“How’s the boy?”

Mr. Gwynn grunted in the affirmative.

Mr. Phinney had an abiding tolerance for all of God’s creatures, chief among them Mr. Gwynn. He was accustomed to his habits, his grandiose storytelling, his inevitable inebriation. For sure, by now, Mr. Phinney barely noted that malodorous cloud of vaporized rye whiskey that typically hung like a funeral mask around Mr. Gwynn’s head.

Mr. Phinney did not mean to sit down, so he stooped low, as if to say something more confidentially Mr. Gwynn, but he stopped himself about halfway down. He smelled something odd.

“What have you been drinking?”

Mr. Gwynn exchanged a disinterested look for a confused one, then cashed it all in for resignation.

“I sat in some onions.”

That made sense somehow.


Rebel Without a Clause


8:47 AM Bob: Stole coffee from board room…went with breafast blend…and apple…

9:02 AM Me: Stole? So I’m Cool Uncle. You’re the Degenerate?

9:03 AM Bob: …rebel…

9:07 AM Me: Right. Rebel. Criminal. Reprobate.

9:14 AM Bob: …no fighting for little guy..why do some get free coffee…whiles others have to pay….43 cents…Kuerig vs Nescafe…I am a revolutionary…the [deleted] Farragut…tearing down the walls of privilege…between the haves and have nots…those expemt and we that are non-exempt…( could you here the battle hymn of the republic …faintly…while reading that last bit…)

9:15 AM Me: Farragut was admiral, who was fighting rebels, not supporting them. (Dummy.)

9:16 AM Me: Battle Hymn was Union anthem, also not a rebel thing but a law and order thing. Evoking Grant, Sherman, etc. Repression. Farms and homes ablaze.

9:17 AM Me: But, OK. You’re a rebel. Who else did you give the fancy coffee to? Who are the Have Nots you are uplifting?

9:22 AM Bob: …duh…I was attempting to describe my actions …as those…adverse to the repercussions for getting caught…

9:23 AM Me: Adverse? Or averse? Should I send you some dictionaries and history books for your birthday?

9:24 AM Me: But back to the point, Msr. Danton. Who else did you give coffee to? Or are you pigging it yourself??

9:25 AM Bob: Baby steps…baby steps…first the spark…then the kindling…then the log…lead by esample…sow the seeds…for equality…on the second floor…

9:31 AM Me: Yes. So. Dumb, thieving rebel uncle?

11:18 AM Bob: Wait…just…secured…cart of sodas…from the R&D conferance room…and distributed them to…the minions in the lab…keeping nothing for myself…

11:28 AM Me: That’s step. But really more like Robin Hood. Not Kerensky, you know, or Jefferson. Perhaps Robespierre, but with more guillotine and no politics.

11:30 AM Bob: Lincoln Leadership Team has catered luncheon…tomorrow…I think I will spirit away dessert table to customer service folks…need to work out logistics…will keep you posted

11:45 AM Bob: Just scored…sugarless gum from…associate director of quality systems desk…left calling card…thanking him for contribution towards the cause…

11:52 AM Me: So, not Robin Hood as much as Ronald McDonald?

11:53 AM Bob: Sh-h-h-h…the pilot lab guys are curious as to my presence…

There’s This Guy, See, and He Walks Into a Bar


“Swensen. Swensen, tell Fischbein that joke.”

“Yes,” Mr. Fischbein said, exaggerating his interest in his usual condescending fashion. “Please, tell me your precious joke.”

“Guy goes to Boston,” Mr. Swensen said, a grin spreading on his face. “Walks out the trains station into the first bar he sees, hungry for seafood.”

Mr. Fischbein shook his head and grimaced with impatience.

“And he asks the bartender, Hey, Barkeep, where can I get scrod in this town?”

There is a flutter of laughter.

“Bartender gets this look on his face. He glances up and down the bar, and says, ‘Buster, I have been asked that question in many ways, but never in the plu-perfect subjunctive.’”

Mr. Fischbein spit out his coffee.

“You see,” Mr. Fischbein coughed. “This is what I mean.”

He coughed again.

“Rascals,” he said as he pulled his handkerchief out to wipe his mouth.

“Dolts. Unprofessional —” he stopped himself. After a beat, he stamped his foot and wagged a finger at none of them in particular.

“There is no such thing as the plu-perfect subjunctive!”

All the reporters broke into laughter. A few of them exchanged money.

We Are Gathered Here to Pay Our Respects to the Nearly Departed

[01/09/2015 8:30 PM Bob: 3 degrees…in [deleted] ….maybe 10 below overnight…so no coyote hunting…brother in law…is a big giant….pussy…

[01/09/2015 8:31 PM Me: You should not be out in weather like that. Your circulation.

[01/09/2015 8:34 PM Bob: Circulation just fine…brother in law …is a bitch…and three sheets to the wind…dropped his rifle in the snow…after retrieving it from behind the bar…at the [deleted]…now he cant get his cigarette lit

[01/09/2015 8:35 PM Bob: Now we have a number of drunks…recommending the best way to get snow out

[01/09/2015 8:38 PM Me: You think it’s fine, but your condition says otherwise. Anyway, I wonder if you should be handling firearms with drunk people.

[01/09/2015 8:38 PM Bob: Geez-zuz…and it was loaded the whole flipp’in time….beam me up Scotty…

[01/09/2015 8:40 PM Bob: Nope…no worries the dip that shot himself in his thigh during conceal and carry class has just rendered the weapon safe…but now the bolt is in the snow…me thinks I ‘ll stroll down to [deleted]…and have a salad…

[01/09/2015 8:43 PM Me: Are you wearing warm clothes?

[01/09/2015 8:55 PM Bob: …layers…plus remaining blubber…I am find…and brisk walking pace…

[01/09/2015 8:59 PM Me: You should be in bed.

[01/09/2015 9:59 PM Bob: Salad over…walked back….didnt get shot…

7:51 AM Me: All fingers and toes, too?

7:52 AM Bob: Yes

7:56 AM Me: So, let’s review. You were carousing with gun nuts, drinking alcohol, and walking around in cold. You ruined Christmas. And you want me to bring my young son to visit?

7:58 AM Bob: …no…no…ate salad…carousing…and ruined Christmas…and yes…I could be the “colorful” uncle…

7:59 AM Me: OK. I’ll go with that. Colorful Uncle. Has toes amputated. Is shot in face. Dies early.

8:02 AM Me: We’ll miss you… Well… I will, anyway. Me, for sure. Maybe [deleted]. You still have work to do on the rest.

8:04 AM Bob: Yes…yes…maybe…you could …collect and bind…colorful stories…a few pictures….

8:06 AM Bob: Include…diarama…or two…

8:09 AM Me: Of course. It goes without saying. You would be important part of the lore of the New York [deleted]s. And I want to emphasize that I would be bereft.

8:10 AM Bob: Thanks…I will start today to bolster…the legend…

8:11 AM Me: Your experience last night, to wit. A rich trove of material. You know, I could tell him how his uncle, before he died, used to go drinking in rural towns. With maniacs. And lived, most of the time, to live the tale.

8:12 AM Me: How his youth was spent seducing women, brawling at fast-food restaurants, and failing to fulfill his athletic promise. How he loved to ski and sail, but never really did either. How he loved to talk about books, famous authors, but never really read.

8:16 AM Me: OMAHA — Bob [deleted], a pot-craving polymath who excelled at never really excelling at anything, died Saturday after a long, frigid night of drinking and fox hunting. He was 55. It was said that he was shot in the face, but Mr. [deleted], a diabetic, had had so many facial amputations that authorities could not confirm the report.

8:19 AM Me: Handsome in his youth, spherical by middle age, Mr. [deleted] possessed a singular charm, and was long known as an amiable, avuncular companion. His interests were diverse, if dilatory. And he was probably the best housewife in [deleted].

8:20 AM Me: We’ll call that the B-matter. I can keep it fresh as we go, so keep those stories coming.

It’s All Just a Joke to You, Until The Economist Puts It in Print

The television series “The West Wing” plays a role on these pages something like a muse, if potato-shaped and more often sleepy than inspiring. For better or worse, there is something about that program that leads me to, now and then, filter life through its steadicam eyes and the fast-talking heavy-handedness of Aaron Sorkin’s social explication.

It has been a touchstone for me on such diverse topics as war crimes, environmentalism and even the “appalling strangeness” of God. And yet I have far from an encyclopedic understanding of the show, which went off the air in 2006, and which I did not even start watching until 2005, and which I still have not watched a moment past a few episodes from the end of Season 4.

And so here I go again.

The Economist two nights ago published an article about cartography that glances at a long-lived dispute about how to best map the Earth.

MAPS of the world have the impossible task

via The Economist explains: Why world maps are misleading | The Economist.

The story goes like this: The world map you are used to seeing was devised by a 16th-century busybody named Gerardus Mercator. His design draws latitude and longitude as straight lines, which at the time suited the sea-going public just fine.

Despite his lack of experience at sea, Mercator knew what mariners wanted.

via The history of maps: Squaring the circle | The Economist.

But what his design also does is distort the various land masses, making Greenland appear larger than Africa, for instance, when we all know that’s not remotely the case.

A sphere cannot be represented on a flat plane without distortion

via Cartography: The true true size of Africa | The Economist.

These distortions, some would have you believe, are the source of many of the world’s problems. Europe’s lingering cultural and political dominance, these people would say, can be ascribed, in part, to its position atop the Southern Hemisphere, you know, lording over all of its now-former colonies. And so on.

Mercator’s famous projection, which marginalises the Orient and establishes the Americas as the “commercially powerful, territorially meaningful place” by placing it in the top left-hand corner of the world.

via Map-making: Errors and omissions | The Economist.

In any case, there eventually were a number of people, Arno Peters, a German historian, to name one, who thought they had a better idea. For his part, Mr. Peters designed a much different map, which to be honest just distorts matters in a whole other direction.

Which is just a long way of my telling you that this dispute, between the Mercator people and the Peters-type people, had an informal airing on “The West Wing,” in Episode 16 of Season 2. In the show, the Peters-type people are depicted as mousey crackpots, which I suppose is what they really are.

What is not as clear is why The Economist is bringing all of this up, over and over.

“Perhaps the time has come,” The Economist says, “to abandon the universal reliance on the Mercator projection in favour of maps that” — blah, blah, blah, and then it just gets all wishy-washy. I am not even going to copy it out.

“What the hell is that?”
“It’s where you’ve been living this whole time. Should we continue?”

The Rue de l’Odeon Book Club


I started with Turgenev and took the two volumes of A Sportsman’s Sketches and an early book of D. H. Lawrence, I think it was Sons and Lovers, and Sylvia told me to take more books if I wanted. I chose the Constance Garnett edition of War and Peace, and The Gambler and Other Stories by Dostoyevsky. — “A Movable Feast,” by Ernest Hemingway.

When it comes to books, and reading, I have covetous tendencies, and occasionally daydream about the possession of a magical power to be able to memorize any book with the touch of a finger.

This is not, I imagine, a popular request heard by your average genie in a bottle, but I confess I think more about that than I do a million dollars.

This jealousy also manifests itself in an avid curiosity about what people read, or more specifically what they used to read — especially figures of historical or literary importance. There are few things that can arrest my progress over a printed page more than a list of books that someone has brought home from a bookstore or packed in a duffel bag.

To wit, in “A Time for Gifts,” a well-known travelogue by the handsy inebriate Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mr. Fermor writes that for his journey to Turkey by foot he packed the “Oxford Book of English Verse” and a volume of Horace’s Odes.

There is a kind of gravity that comes along with that sentence. I don’t know how far it is from where he started, the hook of Holland, so to speak, to where he was going, Istanbul, but the question of what to pack is obviously not a light one — nor was his bag after the addition of that poetry volume.

When I read those words, I grew very curious and tried to deduce which edition of those books Mr. Fermor was likely to have had. Eventually, I could not help it and I bought them for myself.

So you see how it goes.

I have written here before about Mr. Fermor, and his musing about what books he would want on a desert island. But here I am overtaken by another idea: the book-club-within-a-book club.

And what really got me thinking in this direction was my reading Helen Hanff’s “84 Charing Cross Road,” a much-recommended (by me) epistolary of letters between a book-hungry protagonist and a tweedy bookstore in London. Wikipedia has the firstlings of an inventory of the books therein mentioned — including the “Oxford Book of English Verse” — and it struck me then that it would make an interesting reading list.

odenlistWhich brings me to the first edition of an occasional series. I will start with “A Movable Feast,” by Ernest Hemingway, also recommended.

I confess that I have a certain weakness for books like this, in particular the smoky scenes sketched in Paris cafes (pictured), where a few paragraphs can be passed innocently and unobtrusively with a serious-seeming discussion of the right kind of beer to have with a certain plate of oysters. In weak moments, I get covetous about this as well, and have often wished that my magical powers were expanded to include the ability to occasionally lounge around, drinking and scribbling in foreign cities, at 1920s prices.

Anyway, in Chapter 3, Mr. Hemingway introduces us to Shakespeare and Company, “which was the library and bookstore of Sylvia Beach at 12 rue de l’Odeon.”

…arguably the most famous independent bookstore in the world…

via Shakespeare and Company: A Legendary Bookstore in Paris | Vanity Fair.

Mr. Hemingway, or at least a literary version of his impoverished self, makes the acquaintance of Ms. Beach and is astounded by the liberal policies of her lending library. The fees are suspended until “whenever it’s convenient,” and the proprietress encourages him to add to his borrowings. He eventually leaves with a stack of books.

The first is “A Sportsman’s Sketches,” in two volumes, by Ivan Turgenev, a book that if the Internet is to believed made Mr. Turgenev’s reputation as a writer and played not an insignificant role in the abolishment of serfdom in Russia. I’ve never read it, but I will put it on my list.

“Sons and Lovers” by D. H. Lawrence is No. 9 on the Modern Library’s Top 100. And also on my to-read list. This has, again if the Internet is to be believed, some pretty racy bits.

Third in Mr. Hemingway’s pile is “War and Peace,” by Leo Tolstoy, of course, but the translation by Constance Garnett. He raved about it to his friends.

Without Garnett, the nineteenth-century “Rooshians,” as Ezra Pound called them, would not have exerted such a rapid influence on the American literature of the early twentieth.

via The Translation Wars – The New Yorker.

She was apparently something of a translation horse, scribbling page after page until reached “almost up to her knees,” Mr. Lawrence, a friend, once said. Of course, it’s not hard to find folks — notably many Russian authors — who grumble about how she was prone to mistakes and heavy-handed in her work.

Who isn’t?

(I’ve read “War and Peace,” but the version by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.)

Presumably, Mr. Hemingway picked up the Garnett translation of his fourth title, “The Gambler and Other Stories” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

This is not exactly Mr. Dostoyevsky’s most popular work, and was supposedly, perhaps ironically, written to pay off the author’s own gambling debts. (The Times loved it in 1917; “…these stories would suffice to give him rank about the great writers.”)

Which brings us to the end of our reading list, and something of a wild card.

After Mr. Hemingway’s character returns home from the library, he recounts the experience to his wife. She is immediately concerned about the expense, but he changes the subject.

Sure we’ll pay, he says, and “then we’ll walk down by the river and along the quais.” He proposes they get cocktails and have a cozy dinner at home (radishes, foie de veau, mashed potatoes and an endive salad, with apple tart for dessert).

This distracts his wife, so much so that once the itinerary is in place she quickly asks, “Does she have Henry James, too?”

Of course, she does. So for No. 5 in the program, choose anything from Henry James. (I read “Portrait of a Lady” earlier this year.)

“We’re lucky you found the place.”
“We’re always lucky,” I said and like a fool I did not knock on wood. There was wood everywhere in that apartment to knock on, too.