“Are you Italian?”
“Yes. How do you know?”
“I don’t mean to be flirting with you, but you really look Italian.”
I smiled: “And …. How Italians are supposed to look like?”
She smiled: “I don’t know. Elegant, I guess. Mamma mia!”
The lady was very beautiful. I had noticed her as soon as she entered the big hall at the second floor of the magnificent Vanderbilt building which hosts the Russian consulate, on 91st Street between Fifth and Madison avenues. Just in front of the Carnegie building, now turned into the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design. I was already in awe of such century-old glamorous history of palaces, built by the two foremost American billionaires in front of one another for competition, when I arrived at the reception. Unlike New Yorkers and like all newcomers, I am terribly curious and eager to know the details of every place I go. I had been invited there for some Russian movie festival presentation.
“What brought you here?” asked the blond-haired lady.
“Do you really want to know?”
“Yes!” (Her charming enormous eyelashes blinking, I was already seduced.)
“And they are?”
“I confess you I didn’t have anything better to do …. ”
“Ah!” (Disappointed, maybe she hoped I was in the movie business.)
” … which is the main motive why New Yorkers go to places anyway,” I recuperated.
“And the other reasons?”
“91 Street is on my way home to West 93. Just across the park.”
“Ah!” (Puzzled, she couldn’t immediately figure out my status through my address.)
“And the third reason is because I browsed the history of this mansion on the ‘net. It’s amazing, you know? It’s a Vanderbilt palace, and it was the home to John Hammond, the son of a Vanderbilt lady.”
“Ah!” (Disappointingly ignorant, how can you be unaware of John Hammond?)
“John Hammond, the most important music producer of the 20th century: jazz in the 30’s-Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Billie Holiday-plus he discovered Bob Dylan in the 60’s and Bruce Springsteen in the 70’s. Incredible, eh?”
“Oh yes.” (Rather amused by my teenagerly enthusiasm and faking the knowledge of the vast majority of those names, I bet.)
I had exhausted my initial drive. I would have loved to go on with the story of the building, telling her about the Russians buying it in the 70’s, when they were really Russians and Communist and mean, and the Americans not letting them renovate it in retaliation for their invasion of Afghanistan.
So the palace remained empty for 20 years, until ’95.
“And … you are Spanish, aren’t you?” I asked her.
“Latin American. How do you know?”
“You speak like you have a potato in your mouth.”
Eyelashes still blinking. Lord, was she charming: red gown, high heels. She held a champagne glass in her hand. The parqueted hall was getting crowded with luxuriously dressed people, and the immense chandeliers gave the feeling of being right inside a Tolstoy novel.
“Shall we introduce ourselves? I am Maria.”
“Mauro. What do you do in New York?”
“My husband is a diplomat. And you?”
“A journalist. Where is he?”
“He didn’t come tonight.”
Her eyelashes were blinking at such unnatural speed, that for a moment I thought of following the advice of my friend Andrea Turchetti. This legendary Italian playboy maintains that by addressing a just-met woman with the revolting words “Would you fancy a quick screw?”, you get an astounding percentage of positive responses: one yes out of three trials. But I didn’t find the guts to start a statistical experiment on that night with the red-dressed lady (I haven’t up to this day, with anybody: I am still human).
So I opted for an equally straightforward: “Would you like to go?”
“To hear some music.”
“I could sing you some songs.”
“Do you play an instrument?”
“Really! And you sing Italian songs?”
“Wow! Al Bano e Romina, Ricchi e Poveri, Toto Cutugno?”
“Well, if you like them …. ”
Not my favorites: They were big 30 years ago, and unfortunately very successful abroad. But disgustingly melodic, between Michael Bolton and Barry Manilow.
“At my place, if you want.”
In the tristate area there are 35,000 diplomats (families included). The biggest concentration in the world, because you have the 191 missions to the U.N., plus the consulates. And a New York consulate is more important than an embassy in most countries. So, it’s at least double the number of diplomats than any other big capital. In Rome for example we have the Pope, but the Vatican is less useless than the United Nations, so there aren’t quite as many missions there: Diplomats might have to work.
The U.N. building being located on the East Side, the diplomats’ residences tend to gravitate in that area. And their wives acquire the attitudes of Upper East Side (U.E.S.) women. Even more: With the zeal of the neophytes, sometimes they surpass them. Meaning they go to the same half-a-thousand-dollars coiffeurs, use the same chauffeurs, buy the same designer clothes, do the same Pilates and everything. Their main activities are two: nails and charity events. Most of all, they have perfectly learned to say “I’m running errands” on the cell to their husbands in the afternoon, during sex with their lovers. They fake the street noise by moving the phone near to an open window.
“O.K., let’s go.” But she didn’t say that. An Upper East Side woman would never tell this to a man she just met, especially if she wanted to go. So Maria, abiding to U.E.S. rules No. 1 (never tell the truth, otherwise you’ll feel naked) and No. 2 (when you flirt, deny it), replied: “Are you crazy?”
“Yes, crazy about you,” I smiled.
“Too many people know me here,” she smiled back. A complicated way to say yes.
“Leave by yourself, and I’ll reach you in 10 minutes.”
“But I am not alone.”
“Whom are you with?”
Now this is one of the replies which gets more on my nerves. English is the only major language offering gender-free “friends.” Males? Females? You never know, it’s always so ambiguous and neutral. They force you to waste time and look intrusive, jealous and dumb by asking to specify. Half of the times it’s useless, as women in New York have a majority of gay male friends. Or it’s embarrassing, if it turns out that the gay friend is her female partner. Sometimes “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” are used instead, although for over 30 they sound comic. You can switch to “lady friend,” but there’s no male equivalent. And this is where the real drama begins, with the invention of hilarious appellatives such as “love interest” or “relevant other.”
The worst for us Europeans is when we are introduced to someone as “my date.” This is an institution unknown in our continent. To paraphrase John Lennon: “Date is a concept by which we measure our pain.” “He’s my date.”
What does it mean? Are you together? Are you not? Are you having sex? Hope you soon will? Do you live together? Just acquaintances? Hostess, gigolo?
Impossible to assess, sometimes even for the very people dating.
This is the real trans-Atlantic rift, the widening divide between America and Europe. The war in Iraq and the neocons become minor problems, when compared to the huge misunderstandings arising from people named “friends” or “dates.” The Eagles were prophetic: “She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys / that she calls friends.” There is a long way to go between our old-fashioned “fiancé” and the bureaucratic American “I’m in a relationship.” Which, as Allan Bloom pointed out, is so appalling that it kills any desire or lust, not to mention love.
“Who’s your friend?”
“She’s a she.”
“Can’t you leave her here?”
“That wouldn’t be polite.”
“How old is she?”
“So young.” Faux pas. Her blinking stopped. Maria looked between 35 and 45, but that’s exactly the age span during which U.E.S.’ers pretend they’re still in their 20’s. I didn’t dare to ask her the only real logic question: “Is she your daughter?” Too rude. Besides it would have killed both her, and my prospect to bed her that night. But on the other hand, “Is she your sister?” sounded too boot-licking. So, with one of my usual masochistic twists into a complete hopeless gentlemanship, I swiftly switched to an accommodating “Bring her along!”
Maria, Olivia (that was her human shield’s name) and me had fun at my place that night. We sang together ” Lasciatemi cantare / sono un italiano vero” by Toto Cutugno and many other romantic songs. We had the most pleasant of conversations. The only awkward moment occurred when I told Maria my theory about diplomats’ wives aping U.E.S. women, and she didn’t get the meaning of “neophyte”: “Why are you insulting me?”
“It’s not an insult.”
“So, why do you call me misfit?”
“No, Maria, ‘neophyte.’ Never mind …. ”
We drank a lot. Too much champagne. My Montenegro doorman smiled when I went back out to escort them cross town; we clearly looked like we just had a chose à trois. Maria blinked at him too. But I swear nothing happened.
Around midnight Maria called me from her bed. She sounded like she went on drinking: “Next time Mauro, we do cha-cha …. ”
“Ah, you like that dance?”
“Nooo … cha-cha!”
“What is it?”
“Come on, you don’t know cha-cha?”
“Only the dance with that name, my dear, but it comes with three ‘cha’s.'”
“It’s the champagne shower!” she whispered with her Spanish accent.
“Yes Maria. Cha-cha. Next time. Good night.”
You know what New York needs right now?
For years, we’ve been bombarded with acres of terrible, self-involved modern stuff fogging up the glass in the nation’s M.F.A. programs. Don’t even mention slam poetry. The kids aren’t forced to memorize Frost anymore, and the poetry in The New Yorker hasn’t disturbed anyone’s digestion in 30 years.
But it wasn’t always so. New York once provided a fecund home for versifiers: Walt Whitman sauntering down a dusty Sixth Avenue; Frank O’Hara at the front desk of the Museum of Modern Art, lunch poems tucked in his breast pocket; Allen Ginsberg perving around the East Village.
The poets paid attention to us, noticing all the little things, how holy and dumb we were. “I am with you,” Whitman wrote, “you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence / Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt.”
Have all our poets been blown out to sea? On a recent night, Joshua Beckman was standing on the Fulton Ferry landing in lower Manhattan, looking out over the river and sky, a white Guatemalan parka with brown llamas on it keeping off the chill. He’s a guy who, when asked his occupation at the doctor’s office, writes “poet.”
“People think I’m bullshitting,” he said. “Or they really want to know if that’s possible. I call it a job. I love it. It’s a great job.”
At 6-foot-3, Mr. Beckman wore a rough beard, black-framed glasses, jeans and big honking work boots. Poet, indeed! Some Orthodox Jews had just given him some Menorah supplies, and he cradled them in his hand, looking a bit nervous. Poets don’t receive a lot of press calls nowadays.
Mr. Beckman is 33 and lives in a one-bedroom apartment on Staten Island, where some nights he smokes weed and listens to recordings on his iMac of Frank O’Hara reading poetry.
“I went into the building, buzzed the super, and the first apartment he showed me is the one I live in,” he said. But the commute had its charms: It wasn’t hard to imagine Whitman’s reverie-filled rides home to Brooklyn. And this ferry was where O’Hara had penned “Lana Turner Has Collapsed!”
“He wrote that on the ferry going over to do a reading,” Mr. Beckman said. “So I know that in 25 minutes you can write a poem.”
This year, Mr. Beckman published his second book of verse, Your Time Has Come (Verse Press, 2004). He wrote almost all of his 150 thimble-sized poems traveling on the ferry. They’re New York capsules: “Indians swimming / in Manhattan Bay / years ago,” goes one. “Yeah I live here, / but so does that rotten television,” goes another. One per page:
Even the mean waitress
feels the breeze.
I love how people keep dying
and I can spend all day
thinking about her petty comment.
She was so sweet
and happy to see me-
all because of some little story
you told her.
On board the John F. Kennedy, Mr. Beckman bought a Heineken from the concession stand; the Indian woman behind the counter lives in his building and smiled at him. He strode to the back deck, and the city sparkled like a party dress. A bracing wind hit his face.
“I have mixed feelings about this city,” he said. “Right now, we’re having a nice time, but it’s really frickin’ hard to make a living. You know, the first poem I wrote about it was called ‘Leave New York.’ And it begins, ‘Leave New York or the poem will kill you.’ I’ve always had that relationship with it.”
Once on the other side, Mr. Beckman filed off the boat with the teenagers and cops and nurses and made his way to his apartment a couple of blocks from the landing. Inside, he took off his shoes and socks, rolled a cigarette, poured whiskey and sat down.
In his latest, longer poems, he’s been getting agitated-with the country, with poetry, with lots of things.
and I saw the best minds of my generation living in lofts
thinking they were the best minds of their generation
while the world hacked up tax breaks and jet fighters
“A true patriot kills himself when he’s done with the wife and kids.”
When Mr. Beckman came to New York in 1997, it was because of the legacy of great New York poets. “I moved here not really thinking it through, just assuming,” he said. “And I remember going to my first reading. I wanted to be like, ‘I’m here! I got here!’ I thought they would be excited: Another poet had just shown up!”
Inspired by Ginsberg’s experiments with Kenneth Koch back in the 1960’s, Mr. Beckman began performing spontaneous verse in public, inventing poems by alternating words with a poet named Matthew Rohrer. They published a book called Nice Hat. Thanks.
As poets go, Mr. Beckman is pretty successful. He’s received the adulation of poetry-world machers like Gerald Stern and a popular European poet, Tomaz Salamun. For income, he writes online biographies for PBS’s American Masters series. His father is a real-estate agent in Connecticut, and Mr. Beckman still gets flak from home for writing verse for a living.
“We’re in a space that people are supposed to value meaning according to money,” he said. “In which case, I have no value in comparison to Jessica Simpson! Someone from my family said-I was trying to explain that I’m a sort of successful poet for my age, and he’s like, ‘Well, if people value what you do, why don’t they give you any money?’ Well, poetry might precede money, historically. It might be something that got figured out before commerce. Maybe it just doesn’t fit in.”
What about Whitman? Was he still sauntering around Manhattan, as promised, all these generations hence?
“I think the thing that makes him a bit of a ghost walking around-the way that O’Hara seems totally alive to me right now-is that he has such optimism,” said Mr. Beckman. “There’s a cynicism about his singing, that it can be a full-breath song, this want. But I think that’s opening up, too. That desire …. What’s crazy is that didn’t go away. The desire that Whitman had is still there-the desire for agency, for a voice and a song.
“I remember coming on the ferry on some horrible day, and something had happened in Iraq,” he continued, “and I walked on, and there were a hundred people with the Post opened to the exact same page. It was the beheading. Everybody’s got this opened to the same page, and it’s palpable. What do you do? You either get sucked into that and write about that, or I get pushed in the exact opposite direction, staring at the water and saying, ‘Wait! Wait! O.K., everything’s fucked up, but that’s beautiful.'”