By DOUGLAS JOHN IMBROGNO | thestoryisthething.com | feb2020
I am standing on Times Square. Just arrived from out of the ground, like some gopher. Probably like most everyone else not a jaded New Yorker, my sense organs are in a state of stasis. Of overwhelm. Of a weird mixture of delight and alarm.
My first thought at experiencing the synesthesia of Times Square for the first time in nearly a decade is not: ‘Wow!’ Or: “That actor’s electronic face is huge!” It is: “Man, I wonder what the carbon footprint of all this is?!”
I am headed to brunch later on Broadway, and one brunchmate is a friend who builds micro-grids that power hospitals, campuses, and businesses. It’s an off-the-grid response to the surprisingly fragile nature of the fossil-fueled world upon which we utterly—and ever more foolishly—depend.
But I digress. And I will pontificate more if I don’t bring my attention back to the gigawatt grandiosity of Times Square.
My Part Two photos from this trip (Part One: Black-and-White Manhattan) feature the usual New York Tourist Aesthete’s ogling of Times Square, admiring buildings ten times the height we rubes are used to back home in Hobbiton. Yet, courtesy of my traveling companion, Michael, I had the benefit of lodging not in a central tourist district, but at the end of a subway line dead ended in the heart of an Asian neighborhood in Queens.
Not ever having spent much time in the boroughs, it is bracing to come up out of the ground into a fully functioning neighborhood, one not geared to tourists, but to channeling the street life of an Asian marketplace. I don’t have much to say about it, having spent only 48 hours there. We crashed right off the main drag, in a too-hot apartment the size of my living room, 600 miles west in Appalachian hill country. (Rube Reaction No. 1: Really? We can’t control how hot the heat is?)
I will observe a couple minor grace notes, though.
How dear it is to see a young Asian man walking with a stooped, grey-haired father or maybe grandfather. The young man’s two arms are looped and locked, hand-to-hand, like a rosette, around the older man’s left arm. They steer together as a defensive unit or urban pas de deux, coming our way down a crammed sidewalk.
Being a vegetarian, I am impressed, not tempted, by the squishy, spiky, smelly, unfamiliar fish and meats. A splendid panoply of fungi, fruit and meal fixings in stalls spills out onto the sidewalk every dozen feet. I have never grown cozy with the pungent, too-fishy smells of some Asian marts, which account for why this neighborhood—being a mishmash of fresh-food storefronts—is fishy for blocks.
My tastebuds do swoon at a local restaurant suggested by our flat hostess, who is out of town—clearing space for our come-to-Broadway weekend. I love the place for its name alone: Dumpling Galaxy. (If you see a song or poem with that title later this year by me, now you know why). The dumplings I order are to die-for and redefine the entire oeuvre of dumpling history. They are, flat out, the best dumplings I’ve tasted in the Milky Way.
But dipping my toes—and nose, and ears, and eyes, and tongue—into New York City after seven years gone, mostly in the Appalachian suburbs, is not just a smorgasbord of flavors and feels for this 60-something tourist.
In NewYorkNotebook 1, I made a head feint to my complex history with the city. My more serious Muse, would like me to drive this boat away from shore into the deeper, darker waters of What New York Means To Me. I admit, I am overdue by several decades for completing the unfinished—plus never-begun—chapters of what I once dubbed the story of “What Happened.” I most of all owe it to my kids, who as adults now, will hear the full tale first.
I once began “What Happened” on an ancient blog called Hundred Mountain. The name—back in the antediluvian, pre-Zuckerberg age, when people did things like keep writerly blogs—was inspired by a genuinely deep observation. There are so many false pretenders to ‘deep observations‘ clogging the Internet. This is an actual one. I can’t recall right now the name of the fellow who coined the phrase, yet don’t forget his wise words:
“There may be more to learn by climbing the same mountain a hundred times, than by climbing a hundred different mountains.”
I will leave you to chew over the phrase, if you’re the kind of person who, like me, is a ruminant of pithy phrases. (Which is not to call you a cow, or to suggest your breath smells like moist grass beginning to decompose.) But to feed you a bit more cud—the phrase recalls for this ruminant the mythologist Joseph Campbell’s narrative of our two possible archetypal lives: the Life of the Hero and the Life of the Village.
Both are worthy lives. As for me, raised on “Star Trek” and Byron; teenage gobbler of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Asimov’s “Foundation” series; uber-fan of anything “Lord of the Rings-related plus any-and-all mythological lore—I had my ticket punched early for the Life of the Hero.
I was going to climb a hundred different mountains.
I had to.
Decades of therapy later and having climbed up and down the same mountain to work for thirty years—and after what will be told in “What Happened” happened, and then happened again, and then again—I am here to report something back to you.
The Life of the Village is not half-bad.
Especially when you’re still alive from hapless, failed attempts to live the Life of the Hero.
But, whoa, Nelly! While I’m willing to at least point this boat to deeper water on this last day of January 2020, as I type these words on a dented Macbook Pro as midnight approaches, I am not quite ready to fire up the engines and open up the throttle.
I also really want to lose this shitty boat metaphor.
‘The Soapberry Family’
So, let us briefly consider the lychee fruit.
Wikipedia informs me the lychee is the sole member of the genus Litchi in the soapberry family—Sapindaceae. It is a tropical tree native to the Guangdong and Fujian provinces of southeastern China, where it has been cultivated since at least the 11th century.
I became a fan of fresh lychee while once helping build a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in a suburb south of Paris. (I assure you that we are still in a photo-essay on New York, in a remote province of the Web, in an unfashionable writerly blog, post-Zuckerberg.)
The lychee fruit—this fact I did not know—”is pink-red, roughly textured and inedible, covering sweet flesh.” And—this fact I did know—”it is eaten in many different dessert dishes.“
The reason I know this is that the several dear Vietnamese ladies who cooked the Sunday feasts after services at Le Pagodhe Tinh Tam Buddhist temple in Sevres, the last Metro stop south out of Paris, would bring us construction workers leftovers of their feast after cleaning up.
This would have been the winter of 1986-87. At the time, the pagoda was a concrete shell of its current self. Back then, it had only a drafty, unfinished central meditation room and basement dining room suitable for visitors and services.
Late Sunday afternoon, there would be a knock at the door of our ratty construction trailer on the torn-up, future temple grounds. (Literally, a mousey trailer, as in mice-occupied). I’d swing the door wide. There the women would be, smiling broadly, leftovers in hand. My French was just good enough to greet them, thank them, and then take their ramekins of noodles, eggs, vegetables and desserts.
These included sweet, translucent, luscious orbs of lychee flesh. They are like wet Jolly Rancher candy, I tell you.
But soft, sweet, and succulent.
The two Portuguese carpenters with whom an Arabic friend and I shared the trailer turned up their noses at these kind offerings. Domingo and Fernando preferred the meat and potatoes they’d whip up on the messy, gas stove, whose white stovetop on many a morning that freezing winter would be peppered with tiny logs of mice poop.
I knew Domingo and Fernando’s likes and dislikes by inference, hand gestures and halting conversations in French-ish, our screwy brew of baby French and Spanish.
I should add that they were master charpentiers, building out of wood frames, concrete, hammers, saws, and nails the glorious temple that exists as we speak today, on a hillside up a side street in Sevres.
My Moroccan friend and I were construction bumblers. We’d mix and haul concrete, cut lumber, hammer bent nails straight and try to stay warm around a battered metal barrel of burning scrap wood. We barely earned our keep of a handful of francs, doled out on Sundays by Le Venerable, abbot of the temple Tinh Tam-to-be.
But that’s a longer story—the one a dear writer friend, who has seen the draft of it, has pleaded with me for years to get told, already.
Until I get around to telling it, I’ll leave you with this French Wikipedia page devoted to Le Pagode Tinh Tam. It is from this page, just pulled up right now for the first time ever, I learn—also for the first time ever—that “Tinh Tam” signifies in Vietnamese “cœur tranquille.”
Mine was anything but that winter. Although I might have thought it was, especially given all the hashish I smoked during my workdays and play nights in Paris. It says something about my untranqil cœur at the time that I did not know—or was not tuned in well enough to know—the meaning of the name of the Buddhist temple where I worked for several months.
In between, that is, flitting into the heart of Paris via Metro, in search of more zatla (hashish) in an Arab neighborhood near Sacre Couer. I was, you see, seeking the keys to unlock the door into my future as a Byronic hero and globe-galloping writer, known and beloved world round.
Yes, that guy.
I thought a little — well, a lot, actually— French hash might help me find the key somewhere.
But it warms my heart, writing these words during a too-mild January winter in the Appalachian heartland (probably from climate change), that there is a finished Buddhist temple called ‘Tranquil Heart,’ a long Metro ride south of Paris.
See that swayback roof on Le Pagodhe Tinh Tam in the photo on its French Wikpedia page?
I helped build that roof in a tiny, but still real way. I would tie off the rebar frame for the concrete pour to come. I hauled dozens of heavy buckets of concrete to the roof via a perilous rope-and-bucket system crafted by Domingo and Fernando (whom my Arabic friend could’nt tell apart and so refered to as ‘Flamingo.’). Leaning at a 45-degree slant angle on the wooden frame of the pagoda-to-be, trying not to fall to my doom, I’d use pliers to knit the rebar into place.
Pausing to gaze straight up into the deep blue skies of France.
Better than half a chance stoned out of my gourd on zatla.
Yes, I do recall what I’m doing in this remembrance. At least, right now.
New York City.
So, Michael and I stop into an Asian food mart in Queens. We are returning late from Broadway, after seeing David Byrne’s “American Utopia,” which has been like attending a really, really great musical church service.
I need a sweet treat to celebrate this life treat. I see a shiny pink bag of fruit chewies on a shelf of the Asian mart with all its unfamiliar vegetables and fungi.
I’m in. All in.
Up, Up and Away
Speaking of looking up, let’s point this photo-essay upward. What self-respecting New York tourist picture show would be complete without some rubbernecking? Having spent a very little time in both Paris and New York, I will admit I prefer Paris, and not just because of its more than 2,000-year-old artful history.
It’s also because it’s lower to the ground.
If my facts are still correct, the Parisiene suburb of La Defense is the only place where New York-style skycrapers are allowed in the vicinity. (Help me out here, more worldly people than I am these days.)
So, Paris, seen from a high perch like the veranda of Sacre Couer, feels more organic, more human-scale. That’s why the 164-feet-high Arc de Triomphe, commissioned by Napoleon way back in 1806, still commands the eye on the Champs-Elysees, either up close or seen from Sacre Couer. It’s not over-awed by towering buildings.
New York is all thrust and bombast, on the other hand. Pleasurably so, I will add. The most dramatic of its skyscrapers (like the one above) recall enormous rocket ships, ascending in a fiery blast toward outer space. Some familiar lines from the poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee Jr., come to mind. (The final line, at least, while Google supplies the rest of the excerpt):
… Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
New York-scale skyscrapers do point one’s attention heavenward. I’m not so sure about God-ward. But since we took a lychee fruit digression, let’s digress God-ward, as I drop some heaven-pointing skycraper porn from the Manhattan skyscape along the way.
God, What’s That?
I’ve never been a very godly guy, at least, in the conventional use of the term. In long seated meditations, the oldest of human questions do arise: ‘God?’ And: ‘What does ‘God’ even signify?!’ And: ‘What the heck is going on here and why I am alive—and what is ‘alive’?!’
Plus, I did write an entire song that interrogates God, and the idea of God, from a Buddhist-y vantage point. So, I’m not entirely a heathen. The song is titled, of all things, “Godless Appalachian Haiku,” or “GAH” as my bandmate at the time of its creation, Rebecca Skeen-Webb, dubbed it. She’d wonder aloud: “Is ‘GAH’ on the set-list this weekend?”
It was one of her favorites of my tunes (“Lights” was one of my faves of hers.) ‘GAH’ was—and is—a favorite of mine, too. It is one of a handful of things I’ve done which, on my deathbed, I’ll happily say, ‘I did that…‘(PS: You can hear it, for free, on Spotify, with deep thanks to Maynard Chapman for the killer simulated-organ grinder motif, which ties it all together.)
So, ‘Godless Appalachian Haiku….‘
What is up with that?
As a Buddhist sympathizer of long-standing, I’ve spent almost a half-century futzing, getting lost, and found, and lost again, in the deep weeds of Buddhist teachings and practice. I feel I am just now—approaching 63 years of life in this incarnation—getting to the right questions. Much less, by God, any answers, so to speak.
So, while New York’s skyscrapers had me looking up, they didn’t have me looking heavenward. Buddhism, after all, is well known for not centering its teachings on an all-powerful deity, one with a beard worthy of a hip, singer-songwriter, way up there high above the buildings that soar towards clouds.
This is not to say there are no gods in the colorful cosmology of early and later Buddhist teachings. But while the Buddha is considered “a teacher of both gods and men,” he is is no deity himself. He is no Himself or Him—with a capital ‘H.’ (Although, you’d hardly know that from the way some later traditions and devotional, traditional Buddhist cultures reify him with God-like authority, referring to him as ‘Lord Buddha.’)
At this point, I am going to begin to amble slowly backward from the spiritual studies podium, where I do not belong. And begin to get back to portraits of skyscrapers. Here is one above! Yet could that glow, mid-skyscraper, seen in my photo, be a reflection of the glory of this something we call ‘God‘?
Or is it just a scientifically explicable sunburst on a giant block of glass? Or perhaps those are—and this is one of ‘GAH’s’ suggestions—the same thing?
Lo and behold.
But before I stand down from that lectern where I do not belong, I wish to share a Buddhist story that speaks to this whole God question—and how human effort fits into the Buddhist scheme of things. At least, as far as this Buddhist-sympathizing bumbler interprets it. (And ‘‘Caveat lector!’ to you.)
It is a teaching story about about climbing into the heavens, searching for answers from on high. The esteemed Western Buddhist monk, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, recounted the story in an interview, noting the tale is meant “to develop a sense of detachment toward things that people all too often dream about and fall for.”
Like some grifter’s facade for God. Or god. Or the gods.
It’s also kind of funny. The story is one of several amusing tales from a spiritual tradition that does not deserve its caricature sometimes of being a grim slog through an endless bog of suffering. (Not that life, unskillfully lived, cannot turn into a grim slog through a seemingly endless smelly bog.)
So, to the tale.
There is is this determined monk who achieves a vision of some devas. Unseen to most us muddle-headed humans (but not the Buddha, whom they often chat up), devas are sort of angelic, spiritually advanced beings who, however, have their own issues and challenges. The monk asks some devas he meets: “Do you know where the physical universe ends?”
Thanissaro Bhikkhu picks up the tale from there:
“They say they don’t know, but that there’s a higher level of devas. Maybe they know. So the monk gets a vision of the higher level of devas and asks them the same question. They don’t know, but they send him to the next level up. This process repeats, as he gets sent up, up, up, the deva bureaucracy until he finally comes face-to-face with the Great Brahma. He asks the question, and the Great Brahma responds, “I am the Great Brahma, All-knowing, All-seeing, the father of all that has been and will be.”
If at this point you are getting an “I am the Great and Powerful OZ!” vibe, you’d be on the right track.
The monk, just like the Tin Man, isn’t cowed. He says:
“I didn’t ask you if you were the Great Brahma, and so on, I asked you if you know where the physical universe ends.” The Great Brahma repeats that he is the Great Brahma. The monk persists with his question three times (which in many spiritual tales requires an answer on the third try.)
The Great Brahma takes the monk by the arm. He pulls him aside. If this were a sit-com, the great god would pull the quizzical monk into a broom closet or something, out of sight of his god-drunk followers. And then whisper the following:
“Look. I don’t know! But my retinue thinks I know everything, and I don’t want to disappoint them. You go back and ask the Buddha.'”
That is because the Buddha was a human who attained the complete enlightenment and liberation from suffering, a feat of which all us humans are capable, however bumbly we may be right now. And that, the great God Brahmas, is telling the monk, is where the answer lies.
In our human self.
In our human striving.
Amid a circle of serious, disciplined seekers. Not up there in the clouds, in a penthouse loft atop thrusting skyscrapers. (That’s my last bit, not Thannisaro Bhikku’s.)
The reputed last words of the Buddha, on his death bed as an 80-something guy with a bad back, are instructive. His followers wondered who was going to take over the enlightenment business?
Should there be a successor? Maybe something like a Buddhist Pope?
Nope. Said the Buddha: “Work out your own salvation with diligence.”
Somehow, this last skyscraper snapshot (below), feels pertinent as I close down this digression, which likely shed much of the readership of this photo-essay ramble, down to this handful of us. (Still with me? Thanks for sticking it out! We’ll be wrapping up shortly!!)
I don’t know what this New York building is. But it looks like a church or a once-church. I love how squat and solid it sits against the silvery glory of skyscrapers on their launching pads.
The spires of this building also reach for the sky. But at much more human scale.
We keep reaching—and building—toward the sky.
But maybe the answer is closer to the ground?
Streets and Alleys
New York is also a city of streets and alleys. Imagine the difference in perspective between the fellow with the umbrella (below), striding through an alley in Queens—and the Queen of Trump Tower in New York, for instance.
Not to get all political, but I just read somewhere that Melania Trump occupies a whole floor in Trump Tower. It is her personal space. Probably her refuge from the man-baby now in charge of the fate of the Americas, if not the Western world. If not the world.
Venus and Mars. No, Venus and Pluto. That is how far apart the man with the umbrella in Queens is from the lived experience of the Queen of Trump Tower and her deeply damaged, dangerous husband.
I will admit several things as we wrap up. I have spent a week composing and tweeking this photo-essay. That is partly because in my post-newspaper life—laid off April 2018 after more than 30 years as a feature writer/editor—I am rather delightedly discovering something.
I never went into newspapering to be a journalist.
That is likely how the bus-ful or so of people who still recall my service with a great small American newspaper called The Charleston Gazette, may recall me, if they recall my work at all. And it was like joining a proud branch of the service, working for a feisty newspaper that kicked butts and took names.
I saw my job as offering some soothing, readerly, inspirational balm to our readership. You likely needed it after you’d come away enraged, disgusted or depressed by some new expose or investigation of how royally the Good Ol’ Boys had screwed the political pooch a-GAIN!).
While my hard news colleagues set out to steer West Virginia in a more just, equitable and fair direction, I felt my charge was to paint portraits of worthy, soulful people and cool cultural events that made life worth living in West Virginia. (By the way, that’s West ‘By God’ Virginia, to you out-of-towners. Speaking of God. Or god. Or the gods.)
Here’s the realization.
I went into newspapering as it was the only job, to the east, west, north and south, that would pay a living wage—plus insurance and dental—to write. I wished, really, to be an essayist, a la Tom Wolfe or Harry Crews or Oriana Fallaci. (I’m naming some early essay mentors-from-afar.)
So I Tom or Harry or Oriana for why I am still notorious at the Gazette—in a poke-in-the-ribs sort of way—for writing the longest feature story ever written there. On pawpaws. (That’s because pawpaws and their history are really cool.)
I’ve also spent this past week hiding out from the Republican Senatorial dunce class in Washington, D.C., giving the finger to the Founding Fathers. Plus, avoiding watching them leaping up from their fat-bottomed fatuousness to give He Who Shall Not Be Named successive standing ovations at the SOTU.
Don’t get me started.
Thanks for exploring New York City with me.
NewYorkNoteBook 1: Black-and-White Manhattan |
NewYorkNoteBook 2: Up, Up and Away
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