Saturday, August 15, 2009

Aimless Reading: The D's, Part 18.1 (Don DeLillo)

Mao II
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
DeLillo, Don
Mao II

This is not the copy of Mao II that I actually read. I bought this one for Lori at Talking Leaves Books' Elmwood Avenue store when she was reading through his books a few years ago.

Yesterday I was thinking about the experience of living in a city like New York, where the places you eat, sleep, drink, walk, ride the train and so on are constantly being reflected back to you in fiction (and movies and television and pop songs and any other representative mode you can think of). It creates this feeling of everything being layered with representation.

You walk down the street one day, then suddenly realize you saw a cop chasing a robber in a movie down that very street. And then you go home and read a novel that takes place in New York and it so happens the character lives in an apartment around the corner. And then you make yourself some dinner while listening to a folk singer sing songs about the homeless guy on your corner. Time passes and you live in that neighborhood for a while and you walk down that same block every day and maybe you write your own poems or your own fiction about that street and it gets published somewhere and then you read your own reflections on the place back to yourself and the process keeps repeating itself into infinity.

I remember when I read this book, probably around 1994, I had been living on the corner of 4th St. and Ave. B in the East Village for about two years. There are scenes which take place during the mid-80's in Tompkins Sq. Park, which DeLillo describes in all its pre-gentrification glory, when the park was a combination homeless encampment/vortex for the most radical politics in the city.

The riots that erupted there took place when I was in college in the Bronx, and by the time I arrived the park had been closed for renovations for several years. Ten foot chain link fences surrounded the park and no one could get in that wasn't busy building the new one. Within a year, the "improved" park, the one that didn't allow for overnight sojourns, opened. I had no experience of the old one, but reading DeLillo's account of it created in my imagination a sense of identification with the older, wilder days of Tompkin's Sq.

Over the next five or so years I probably walked through and around Tompkins Sq. several thousand times, and my experience of it became bound with up my own memories of having walked around it for hours having breathless political and aesthetic and existential conversations with my friend Paul or of dates I had been on with various women, which had sometimes ended up with a romantic (or unromantic) walk in the park and also the memory of the park I'd experienced through DeLillo's fiction and later through various other written accounts of East Village life before the riots. I began to feel I was not only living my own experience of the place, but the experience of all of those representations of the experience of having lived in that place I had experienced in fiction.

Whenever I am in the East Village now, I stop by my old apartment building (235 East 4th St., Apt. 6C) to see if my name is still on the buzzer -- it is, though the last time I checked, the current tenant had taped their name over the top of mine, the true name, the one impressed in plastic, the genuine article, not the paper pretender living there now, and knowing it is there gives me a certain satisfaction, as if I were still living there, and that I was the one true occupant, and perhaps I still am.

Maybe that other me is still eating a falafel on Ave. A in the evening with Paul before stopping off at the newsstand up the block, between 7th & St. Mark's, the one run by the polish guy and his two spectacularly beautiful daughters and where they serve the world's greatest egg creams, and maybe I buy one for myself while Paul buys a frozen yogurt at Nino's pizza and then maybe we start doing laps around Tompkins Sq., complaining about how much the East Village is changing before our very eyes, and maybe nearby is a film crew recording our every move for a film they are making about the changing landscapes of New York, and maybe on a bench sits a writer, scribbling away in her notebook, taking note of the two breathless twenty-somethings eating ice cream and gesticulating wildly as they disappear down the street.

1 comment:

Joseph Mailander said...

There was a rock in Riverside Park I remember vividly when I was out on my afternoon jog at age 18.

That's now 34 years ago for me, and I even wonder if it's still there. But I'd like to return to it, not anytime soon but when I'm 68, take a long ironic look at it, and think those thoughts: "For fifty years, it's been going on, and all the time you've been here, sitting content as other joggers pass...and here I am again, and it's all nothing to you what I did in the interceding 50 years, it could have been anywhere at all, but here we are again, you and me...and I want you to know that this memory I've carried of you through all that time, it was really what it all was about, and so here I am again, honoring that young man who jogged by every afternoon fifty years ago, and the way he looked forward to reaching you every day."