Brooklyn Heights: Construction

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself (3)








Nick’s Gas and Service

Last spring, after one of my car tires deflated as I pulled out of the driveway, I parked and walked 200 yards to Nick’s, the nearest filling station and mechanic shop, to ask for advice.


I’m a Nick’s regular, but I know very little about the people who work there beyond what anyone would observe with each quick, practical visit. For years, my gas had been pumped either by a Lebanese man named Karim, or an attractive young guy whose name I never caught and was too shy to ask for. Both are gone; Karim died of cancer a year ago, and soon after, the young guy moved on.

After Karim died, another Lebanese man would often pump my gas; this, I learned later, was Nick, the owner. Nick is older, in his eighties; his bald head is peppered with spots and his gait is slow. His accented speech, emphatic, punctuated by silences, makes it seem as if he’s half here and half elsewhere, but he’s sharp, in charge, in touch, and focused on the nuances of his shop.


I stepped into the garage and explained my situation to a younger assistant. He thought for a minute. ¨Go back and drive the car over here, we’ll take a look.¨

¨No, no, no!¨ Nick appeared from behind a lifted car. ¨This can ruin the wheel.¨ He walked up, then pointed a finger at his charge. ¨You pump the tire and bring it here.¨

Dutiful, the assistant walked back with me and pumped some air from an ancient metal canister into my tire. As he pulled into the garage, Nick watched, checking out the tires from a few angles.

¨You may need a new tire or you may need just a patch. We’ll put it on the lift and look. Wait in there,¨ Nick said, gesturing to the little registry room off of the garage.


This was my first time inside, but looking around, something felt familiar. A lot of things, actually. The garage, the office, Nick: they all reminded me of my grandfather, Joe, who was a race car mechanic. Worn, smelling of stale cigarettes, and lit by fluorescent lights that seemed to have survived a few decades burning at the same low temperature, Nick’s place was spare, like my grandfather’s garage, containing just the basics. I could feel how much time was spent here: minutes, hours, days—a lifetime.

My grandfather was an impenetrable person whose conversation ran almost exclusively along the lines of cars, race cars, and races. As a child, I felt in his garage a mystique laced with touches of comfort and touches of fear. Deep in a central Phoenix, fifties-era neighborhood strung with one-story houses and backyard citrus groves, his garage loomed out back off a stretch of polished red concrete. Inside, the garage was cool and dark. The shelves were lined with old peanut and cashew canisters filled with (metal) nuts and bolts. A pinup calendar hung on one wall where naked women with huge, cartoonish breasts posed on top of Jaguars and Ferraris. Fixed in the middle of the room would be, of course, a car, one of a few classics, the gods of that house, whose inner workings were as mysterious to me—and as little probed—as those of the man who worked on them.

Who was the person in this space? I only knew the contours of the space itself, and even then, I only knew them from my limited perspective. I only could tell, whatever it meant, that this room, a universe lit by metal, rubber, and oil, was my grandfather’s place. This was where he really lived, which was the next closest thing to who he really was.

My family would drive to my grandfather’s house twice a year, in the late afternoon on Easter and Thanksgiving, after visiting the extended Lebanese family of my grandmother (Joe’s first wife), who died when my father was a little boy. We’d sit in the living room as Joe chain smoked, ate mixed nuts, and discussed cars, race cars, and races with my father, until he would finally lead me, my brother and my sister through the garage for a good look at the cars. (A favorite: the Model A—he’d start up the engine for us). Then we’d step out the garage’s side door to the backyard, where we’d pull ripe grapefruits from the trees and throw them to the neighbor’s flock of sheep. The sheep would eat them skin and all. I dreaded trips to Phoenix, but throwing grapefruits to the sheep as the air cooled, next to the polished red concrete and the garage, the concrete so close, so smooth and odd to me, from another time—this holds up as one of my most mythic childhood memories. Trips to my grandfather’s house always ended this way: a tour of the garage, a few grapefruits thrown to the sheep, and then a shuffle down the red concrete to the front yard, as the sun set, to say goodbye.


I looked into Nick’s garage, taking in its energy. Can a space itself, and a person’s presence in it, say enough about who that person is? How intimately can one know another simply by spending time in the rooms in which the other spends the most time? Those rooms might say everything and nothing at once.

And within the rooms, their objects—these cars—how much can they say? As an adult, I now understand the value—the necessity—of mastering complex but predictable systems. Among other things, they can function as conduits, ways to relate to others—even if those ways are abstract, or remote, or deeply incomplete.


I stepped into the garage to ask Nick how the inspection was going. Before I could ask, he turned from the car to face me. ¨The tire is fine,¨ he said. ¨It needs only a patch. You live right down the street?¨

Yes, I said, right down the street, so I could come back anytime to pick up the car.

I wanted to ask him something unrelated to the car—anything. ¨Do you live in the neighborhood too?¨

¨No.¨ He was quiet. ¨I live here,¨ he said with a laugh, then paused.

¨You come back in an hour and it’s finished.¨

Morocco: Correspondences

To Correspond:

1520s, “to be in agreement, to be in harmony with,” from Middle French correspondre (14c.) or directly from Medieval Latin correspondere, from cor- “together, with each other” + respondere “to answer”

Online Etymological Dictionary


Four miles from the village of Ait Benhaddou, along a winding, upward, desert path, stands a lone fig tree marking the site of a spring. Just ten or so years ago, before indoor plumbing came to the clutch of villages strung along the Ounila River valley, each family trekked with donkey and vessel here and back, here and back, to gather enough water for the day.


After the shadeless climb, resting under the fig tree’s foliage, I imagine what an unlikely place of celebration and communion this must have been.  Today, a place remote, absolutely abandoned and silent; for so many years, a place where water was poured and portioned out, where food, stories, news was shared.

The roots, cutting through the rock like tributaries, mirror an unfinished electrical box outside the walls of a crumbling kasbah in the village of Tamedakthe.


Drawing on vital substances from below, the roots and wires each mark sites where deep human needs and desires concentrate and are dispersed—where exchanges take place between elements, between people.

Walking back to Ait Benhaddou along the road servicing the valley, I notice the power lines that slip beside the pavement.


Their upright and sloping lines seem not alien from, but a part of the surroundings, shaped as if in response to the landscape; like the fig tree’s roots, they are a visual reminder of the practical human connections (and incredible real solutions) that undergird daily life.

Four Suns


…what spirit
Have I except it comes from the sun?

Wallace Stevens, from ¨Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu¨



There may be nothing so reliable as the sun.



Despite its turbulence, it is one of the few things we can count on;



it is the closest thing we have to a fact.

SAM_0286Marseille, France


Thirty minutes north of Marseille, near a small Provencal town, an experimental synthetic star is under construction. The ITER Tokomak, which will take at least twenty years to complete, is designed to mimic the sun’s power and offer future generations an alternative, sustainable energy source.

Human-built, in process, hypothetical, it is an idea, and it throws everything known and enduring into question.

si-ITER2Photo credit: ITER Research Center




Marseille: Construction

Piece by piece, Marseille is being ripped apart and rebuilt, just as it has been, time and again, for thousands of years.


Construction workers do more than labor: they have a hand, practical and direct, in the creation and recreation of a place. In Marseille, they build upon the work of the city’s founders and leave their own for future change.


It’s cosmic work, and it makes me think of this passage from Whitman’s Song of Myself:


I am an acme of things accomplished, and I am encloser of things to be.

My feet strike an apex of the apices of stairs,
On every step bunches of ages, and larger bunches between the steps,
All below duly travel’d, and still I mount and mount.

Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me,
Afar down I see the huge first Nothing, I know I was even there,
I waited unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist,
And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon.

Long I was hugg’d close–long and long.

Immense have been the preparations for me,
Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me.





Nice: Ecstatic Places

If I remember correctly, the first five minutes or so of François Truffaut’s film L’argent de poche (¨pocket money¨) follows crowds of schoolchildren descending staircases across the town of Thiers, France. The waves of children seem endless; the stairs seem endless. It’s an ebullient, hopeful expression of our perpetual passage from each moment to the next, tempered just a touch by an adult’s sober recognition, or dread, of the inevitable.
In France, it’s also a sight as common as spare change. Every weekday afternoon, the late afternoon bells ring and children emerge out of doors and stream down staircases, spilling onto the sidewalks and streets that were empty just a few minutes before.
The noise (le bruit) emanating from these schools before or after each bell is extraordinary. All of a sudden the neighborhood lights up, burns, and burns until the noise extinguishes itself. It reminds me of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, where thousands of blackbirds pack into trees and simultaneously call to one another, with overwhelming pitch and confusion, for a more or less precise period of time every evening.
The children all seem to be yelling; the only message to be taken is some urgent need for action, although sometimes, especially in the mornings, one voice will rise above the others: ¨Maman! Maman! Maman! Maman! Maman!¨  
A special church can be found in a typical neighborhood of Nice: L’Eglise Sainte-Jeanne d’Arc, a church where even the non-religious visitor can experience a spiritual moment.
Its unusual architecture strikes the passerby from afar.


Passing from the sunlight to the candlelit interior, the visitor is drawn into a space both modest and grandiose, marked by a spare richness: two rustic organs, hand-carved wooden chairs, rounded stucco walls that sweep to the sky, punctuated at the ceiling’s mid-height by simple stained glass.
Prominent on the right side of the church is a painted sculpture of Jeanne d’Arc. Her face stuns. A paradoxical clear blend of emotions live within it, notably sadness (mourning) countered by hope, and modesty countered by courage.
Stepping back outside the visitor feels the depth of the church’s darkness and the depth of the sunlight; it is like having been washed with ancient water in shadow and then being released to the bright world to dry.


You sea! I resign myself to you also—I guess what you mean,
I behold from the beach your crooked fingers,
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me,
We must have a turn together. I undress, hurry me out of sight of the land,
Cushion me soft, rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you.
Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself (22)