Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
There is light in the space and as it’s bounced off the walls and ceiling it makes nearness and distance out of what’s dim and what’s bright. You can turn one way or another in the bareness of white surfaces with lines where they meet and the weight of shadows to tell direction along the shapes. What you see is measurements and not things by their name and remembering what they are for. In back of the light out the window there is a theme with objects and details in a rectangle and people or cars or just the building across. If it’s close it may cut into your light or you feel watched or you get to watch something. Either way it’s one more thing on your mind.
On Wooster Street facing East on the seventh floor the only buildings that were tall enough to rise into my level view were a couple of blocks away. At sundown they got red and the windows were mirrors shut tight with gleam. It was spectacular in the manner of painted rock or something but what made it vast was the tangible proof of all the space behind me that supplied the horizontal light from afar.
This is an industrial zone with warehouses and scrap heaps and open-air stockpiles. The gate is open and you walk into this yard, there is no path, the ground slopes away and becomes more watery. Everything here is brick red: the silt you stand on and that is seeping into your shoes is city ground down for Turkish coffee, what you might call the fine grade of city. The coarser grades are behind in a huge mound. There isn’t much structure, walls were turned into land, and the few objects are also in line to become just matter. The process takes time and this place has it. The low forms are the kind that can only be made with wetness, they are flat and bulging. How sleek they would look with a coat of varnish on a hot day. The shapes run down toward the canal but mostly they were too lazy to get there. There is an iron ladder over the edge and climbing down to the water level you find that the wall doesn’t go down vertically but curves away from you. You are under the belly of a concrete barge and with the red mud on top of it you had had no idea you weren’t walking on land.
One of the favorite spots is a lost place just because people don’t go there, not in numbers. I never saw anyone down there though it’s handy and right off a busy part of town. All I can say is that it must be remote by character. What else would make it hard to get to? The good points are easy to see. You get to sit in the sun with your feet dangling over the water and far from the traffic. This is about two hundred yards into the Hudson, with the bay on the left over to the beach and the eggshell dunes topped by the two resplendent transistors, one now with a toothpick. You are on this concrete stoop at the end of the pier, it has a giant tire to sit on and an old car for shelter when the rains come; there is something the matter with its door but through the open window someone had tied the handle to the steering wheel and on leaving I do the same. The location is principally one of water, you feel close to the boats and into their traffic lane, almost as though you were yourself embarked on one; small craft might even hail you. The city is in the shadow of your mind, behind you, screened off by the tallness of the shed and on the second floor there is this stately balcony toward Hoboken. For breakfast the people step out, they stretch and lean over the railing and enjoy the breeze with their coffee. What a gorgeous apartment they have, it must come with the job. Or the governor is on the balcony, addressing the crowd: all the hot dog vendors on the Hudson have assembled in their boats. John suggests bringing my hammock here, like for the summer, not to take it home every time, One could also keep a small boat, an inflatable perhaps, and house could be set up in the rafters where no-one ever looks, all they are using is the ground floor. It’s a lot of free space and you could probably get away with it for the longest time. Living arrangements don’t belong here and that makes the prospect giddy with elation.
The furtive zone is under the balcony; that’s where you can be seen by the guards. You try not to be there, it’s hide-and-seek every time you walk past the open gate. Inside it is somber with many cars on the floor and at the far end where the street is you have the corner shack with the guard and a light bulb. There are garments and things strewn in the cars, they are like unmade beds and the whole thing adds up to a hotel except it is more like a doss-house, or perhaps like this hotel on East Houston with the repellent bluish rooms where you had to walk up to the second floor and through the chainlink gate in the chainlink security net that cut right across the stairwell, slicing the house, it hurt, it was so damn cage-like, you expected frightened captivity inside and prowling evil crowding in from the streets; I don’t think it’s there any more, the wire wall, at one time the HOTEL sign disappeared and the new proud one went up, EAST HOUSTON APARTMENTS it said and the looks were of money being made in real estate.
The totalled wrecks I understand and those that simply weren’t worth the towing fee when they broke down one more time. But what about all the other cars, the ones that look like you could fix them? Some with their windshield composure shattered and most like cans, dented and sprung open, the doors and lids jolted, bloated braggart mouths ajar, the belongings in the trunk ransacked by the police for clues, toys and blankets and suitcases spilling over. Empty buildings mean that the people moved some place else, but how in transit do you become separated from your vehicle? Did they all of a sudden pull up and get out and just walk? Or did they park at the curb and went about their business and then there was this change of plans and they never made it back to the car? In short, this is like a hangar full of watches that stopped at such-and-such a time. Buildings are never like that, they are different in the way they carry in time. The only exceptions are construction sites, unfinished and discontinued. And the cars don’t have that look while they are out on the street, it is only here that they get it, when they are shepherded and indoors. Perhaps being cannibalized by members of the public keeps them in the time stream, as an ongoing project. But they are just as easy on the eye when no parts are missing, so that can’t be the reason.
To the left the beach is topped by the two resplendent transistors, one now with a toothpick. Ever since they began making radios with amplifiers there have been these recurring waves of identity. You can see it in the rich and sculpted late art-deco type, the Shell-Mex BP building on the Embankment in London or the Samaritaine in Paris make great wireless sets. The economy models from the late ’40s are like New Town housing in Britain. Then it is the pricier superhets from the early and mid-’50s, the ones that had the new-fangled push-button controls. These unsculpted boxes with their vertical edges rounded off and the front spanned by a tinsely web are in the concrete style with columns, gilded or in tile mosaic, standing inside the shop window acreage. This model first had currency in the municipal theatres and opera houses all over reconstruction Germany and then it was for indoor swimming pools, right up to the transistor era. A related but more extravagant style from the ’60s which is an American embassy when it is outside the United States and a state capitol when it is inside, never made it to the audio stores. With stereo the spatial coordination of the components became the central theme and things went on to another scale. Now you are talking about urban planning’s plazas and conference centers or civic or Lincoln. The shopping malls aren’t right, though. They are out of the city where the land is cheap and makes them flat like something that can’t get up from the blueprint and soar.
The docks really seem to stretch awfully far if you are not used to them and you are not the right scale like the size of a ship or the length of a freight train or the speed of people in a car. Everything here is man-made but the architectural theme is one of mudflats. That’s how vast it is and tidal. What they found here before it became docks, the original matter was not very sorted out. It wasn’t that you had one thing that was water and another that was land, it was more like two different conditions of the same substance and the one could always stand in for the other. The docks are made by separation. Out of one long and narrow strip they sucked up the mud and that’s where you now have deep water, and on the strip next to it they saved all that mud and it became land. This was repeated many times and all the peninsulas are joined at their bases by further strips of land which makes them like a tree with branches and leaves or the same thing could be said of the water arms. The wharf across is never far but you can’t get there the short way, you have to go back a mile or so to where they are linked and double up from there. What is near is not within reach and the travelling is long. The shortcuts are on the water and the transit system here is by ferry. These people get their living from the water and you can see how anxious they were to have enough of it.
Everything is big and work-like and the things go so well together. The tools and the moving things are rugged and immutable just like the other pieces, the still ones that you can name a place by, a ramp for example. There are no hand things, nothing a guy could shift or brandish, everything takes power, nothing you’d take home, and that puts it on one footing with boulders, tracks, canals, trees. I admire the scenery with excavator eyes.
Halfway across the huge steel bridge I point to the other bank with the cragged things.—I can’t look at it, she says, it gets me down.—But why?—It’s rusty and too much metal, thorny and cold and sad. All this hard matter with edges and bare under the weather, I can’t take it.—Actually that’s what I like about it. It’s not stuffy.—O.k., I’m thinking to myself, too much bleakness and water. She’s built close to the water, I remember. The whole family is, she once explained. It’s her way of saying that she breaks into tears easily. One kind of has to be told, she’s not the maudlin sort.
Now her eyes have caught the blue cabin cruiser chugging out to the estuary. From the bike she leans over the railing. That way she is closer, gaining a few inches on a thirty feet drop, tenderly. It’s about as inspiring as a plastic cup in the middle of a canal. That’s where I’d like to be now, she says. With the people in the cabin. They are all around the table with the coffee cups and they have a stove and there is a cake for the occasion.—It’s cramped and steamy, I object.—But it’s real cozy. It’s a home.—You sound like lace curtains on the portholes.—Why shouldn’t they have lace curtains if that makes them feel good. I wouldn’t mind.—She shivers with their warmth. We turn the bikes around, back to the apartment. She makes a plum tart. Her busyness peoples the room. She’s a family. Just add hot water and serve. On this scale I like a family just fine. It’s on loan, numbers one, and takes care of herself. The tart is great, we eat until nothing is left.
I could never live in America, I am an Auvergnat, you see. I need my region, my countryside, this place where I belong. I am only in Paris by the force of circumstances, I am not a Parisian, I will never make one. You have to know this about me, I won’t make any sense to you if you can’t appreciate what it means to be an Auvergnat. America must be so empty and alien, it has no history. At home, around the villages, each blade of grass grows where the hand of my ancestors placed it, nothing is arbitrary or savage, every inch of it is human. Or if it wasn’t exactly my ancestors it was the other people from the village, it comes to the same thing. This knowledge comforts me. The land is my strength, this land, it is profound and I have my origins in it. The face of nature was shaped by the hands and the labor of the people from my village, it is a human kind of nature. The people had breathed the same air and smelled the same shrubs, their joy and their sorrow, their lives and deaths and birth-giving had been in these same houses. We are a proud lot, all this continuity inspires us with independence and self-reliance. We are like a rock, each of us. The people in Paris, that’s different. They are drifters. I’m not putting them down, I just want to make you understand their situation. They think they are Parisians but in reality they don’t belong anywhere. They have no place of their own. The true Parisian doesn’t exist. There is no such thing, there never has been. Paris is just a collection of people, they are from all over the country, it’s not a community, it’s too big, there is no land. They are Auvergnats like myself, or Bretons or Alsaciens and so forth, you can ask them yourself. They all came each from their region, or their people did anyhow. You won’t find a Parisian, not a single one.
He is telling me who he is. The picture in my mind is of these small stores, produits régionaux, just as pricey as Dean & Deluca’s and occasionally a lot grumpier; that’s for charm. These are the regions’ shrines in Paris, dank, cave-like, conspirational; everything comes from some special source like the cousin’s butcher store back home, almost like bootlegging. Here you eat with word of mouth. In the window there are dried sausages, gnarled and knotty, saucissons secs, and moldy cheeses on beds of straw like cows kneeling in the stable. The luster in this manger scene are bottles of marc, fine, framboise, prune eau de vie, or calva.
The way he says fait par l’homme it could not translate into Man-made. He would never use that expression for man-made fibers, it is the very opposite. He is identifying himself. It’s a national characteristic. Frenchmen tell you that they are Auvergnats. They figure that this is how they are different from other Frenchmen. How many regions there are, they must be small. Here are some: la Normandie, la Picardie, l’Artois, la Champagne, la Lorraine, l’Alsace, la Bretagne, le Poitou, le Limousin, l’Auvergne, la Gascogne, le Beam, le Languedoc, la Provence, la Dordogne, la Camargue. The French don’t seem to notice how much the strong points are alike. Each region has a name of its own which makes it special and that’s what they have in common. Your region makes you stubborn and real and trustworthy. The people there are individualists. They are collectively individualists. Your region is a quarry and you are a chip off the old block. There are also poverty and abundance. This would seem to offer some scope for telling them apart but mostly they are said to have both. The poverty stands for austerity and ruggedness and the abundance is so everybody gets to eat well. Or you can think of the poverty as an architectural idea, a style, and the abundance is the motherly part of home. Both motifs are used together to show that this is not an industrial way of life.
The women don’t present themselves as a regional product. This must be about the saucissons secs. As a look, it is much better on men. They can get away with character.
The docks had always been friendly territory. At first my father took me there on his business errands. I must have been eight or nine. The air in the warehouse was sweet and rich with tobacco and hazelnuts, figs and oranges. This was where the Mediterranean boats called. It was only a year since people began to see other food apart from turnips and potatoes, only a year from the time that people would get on slow freight trains to take home some of the coal or steal a tree from the park at night for heat. Mostly things were in burlap but tobacco came pressed in bales, like the cotton which had no smell of its own and that’s why I remember it as fruity and nutty. The oranges were in crates and on each shift the crane driver would make sure to drop a load, then the longshoremen could help themselves to the fruit spilled from the boxes. Many of the bigger piers had been destroyed by bombs and here the water was too shallow. At low tide the boat would rest on the sloping bottom and I was fascinated to see it listing away from the pier.
These were places of blackened wood and rowdy men, or maudlin when drunk and violent. The bottles and the glasses were sparkling from the blackness of the shelves. Many here were former seafarers. I could use the shelves for exotic blackwood in my poems or sometimes I made cedar trees. In the poems it didn’t say it was exotic, nothing was exotic there and that made them very strange poems. I was seventeen and hiding in the basement next door. That was on account the police were looking for me. Mostly it was just black anyway and had soaked up many years of use and people around and belonged with the peeling street fronts and the cobblestones and the cat and the phone when I was taking a sunbreak and with all the other things. The people were gentle with me. When the place got crowded, one or two of them would come to my table.—You busy? I just want to sit here. I won’t talk to you. You get on with it.— I went from being social to writing and back. It was no trouble for them. Trouble was one of the English words everyone knew. It had become a native word. They knew it from getting into it, and one of the uses was for getting a pal out of a funk: You in some trouble? was the opening line. In the early weeks they would introduce themselves. That was a special period, the rites. It meant I belonged, so I had earned their names, but I hadn’t been around long enough and that was why the names had to be said for me. I remember the woman who said I’m the Felt Louse. That’s my name. You just call me Felt Louse. The street was shaped a crescent of some 20 modest buildings and supported its eight bars. It was sad years later when people began to buy TVs and stay home. Patrons from further away were uncommon. Sometimes a guy would walk in who wasn’t used to me yet and these would always get mad before they were finished shutting the door. What’s that feller writing, they’d holler. No matter how drunk the bunch, they would always set him right. They took it I wasn’t putting them down even though it was true I was using a pen. The barrels were blackish wood, too, for sitting at the bar. I had to stand and use both arms if I wanted to move them a couple of inches, that’s how heavy they were. In brawls they would be hurled right across the place. The saloon keeper was a prize fighter and he kind of had things under control. I hung out there for company but also for heat. A beer was eight cents and I could usually afford one in a day. These were drinking men with a strict code of honor. If someone offered me a drink I could try to decline it but that wasn’t on the cards; they would sooner accept that I could not return the favor. But the real caring was when they began to encourage me to trade the drink for food. This was unheard of. At the price of a beer, they would stand me a cold meat ball. Collectively these were known as chansonettes’ tits. This expressed an idea of size, like skinny. The juke box had some Elvis and Bill Haley but mostly oldies and some shanties which were never changed; there was one about rolling home from Sacramento on a four-mast bark. That would have been around Cape Horn.
One cup of tea was enough in those days to give me nausea and cold sweat. I guess it depends on how much you eat. I’m just mentioning this for the record because most people giggle at the idea. Ten years later tea poisoning drove me out of the Russian Tea Rooms for an urgent breath of fresh afternoon air. We had taken the place by its name and not ordered anything else; even at that it was the week’s extravaganza. The payoff was that it got me in good with this girl who had the same problem and nobody would ever take her seriously. Our money had gone for materials for a kite to fly in Central Park.
A mile from the eight bar street a canal made a seam between the city and the docks and on it on the city side was my favorite crane. I never saw it working, it probably didn’t work during my life. I can say this because it was in the wrong place, the city had grown. It was a buff or brown that had picked up some pink in the fading, this promised both ice cream and rust and should be in a Brazilian film. It stood high on four legs with a crane house the size of a studio apartment and a lot of it was glass cage. I always thought how great it would be to live in it, I was crazy about that crane. I really played down how much of the space the machinery would take up but I certainly didn’t want it gutted. I kept late hours and the sun would streak my bed in the morning and at intervals the crane would turn some to keep the warm bright patch on me. I was thrilled by the rumbling in my sleep, getting a little help from my crane; photocells would start it and stop it. I have since been looking at many structures with the same eager query. I always seem to be looking for a place to live, it’s become my way of striking up a relationship with sizable artifacts. Five years later in London I had this army cot and in the mornings I would get out of bed and drag it around to keep in the sun. The lattice boom on the crane was rigid in the horizontal, it could not be raised. The whole thing could only turn like on a disk. I had never figured out this design limitation before now but clearly it had provided the mechanical platform for my fantasy. The address said At the Old Crane, but this was for another one nearby, a hand-cranked model that was a squat round hut on the ground with a conical roof and it was still around simply because it was liked, I don’t think it was landmarked.
In static monotony we are staring at each other. All I see is presence, checking that she is there, keeping the lines open for the current to flow. No signal in it or modulation, nothing that she means to me, just that enthralling presence, magnetic and unthinking, the pull of the tide.
I see her brow hair by hair like a brush under a magnifying glass. The vastness of its swath I scan and the bare skin in each distance from hair to hair as they thin out toward the edges, almost like counting them. What I see in my staring is random and pedantic. On the frame I have no opinion and that makes it straight as a Sheeler photograph. I do nothing to change what I see like move my head or eyes. No doubt I turn but on some other impulse such as for muscle comfort, and whatever comes into my vision is welcome to the same unquestioning attention.
I take in her eyes, the diameter of the irises and the even opacity of the brown. I register the rapid flicking shifts every now and then, and in between there is motionlessness. It feels good how regular and alike they remain, you can look at them the way you look at buttons. No doubt I do.
If there were captions to the inventory my eyes are taking, they would run: “That’s there, and that’s there; and that’s there, and that’s there,” a rivet each of them, bolted I am to her.
With glee she pronounces Luftwaffe where I said air force, insistently she repeats it. She asks about counts and barons. What the hell. Maybe it goes with her craziness for vampires and the pride in her fang tooth. She claims to set store by manners. I wonder. Fondly she remembers a lot of hand kissing in Latin America and I mention that one is not supposed to touch the hand with one’s lips. That’s by way I have nothing else to contribute to the subject and one share in the fondness. Right away she wants to play it; I correct the angle of her wrist. What am I getting myself into, now I am set up as an authority in this matter and a curiosity on account of that. Robert turns up, and as they are leaving she tries to get me to do it in front of him. I make like I didn’t notice. Hours later, they are back, I am going out, she’s on the bed and offers me her hand. This time I go along with it to gratify her, Robert at her bedside. It’s a game but so is sternness and I don’t think I could have kept a straight face refusing it a second time. Later she tells me that Robert wouldn’t believe about not touching with one’s lips. Kind of thought it a scream, I guess. So they must have discussed it at the Market Diner before the second attempt which was her proof.
Her eyes are the color of her bruises. She likes to have her hair pulled, slow and strong, in thick strands away from the skull. Mostly she’s raw to the touch. The build is narrow and the bones are set even closer, not right under the skin. In a tennis dress from the ’30s she’s a waif or a fly trap. People above her age don’t get her age right. She keys them in with a line of patter on what she was doing way back when, dropping numbers of years. The waif has a tinny voice or a rusty one; this must change with the humidity. It sounds breakable with a plucky grating edge to it and that makes you care about her.
It’s a type, she says, in the tone of one demystifying what seems puzzling or special. It’s called Skinny Girl with Tits. I don’t like the word usually but here it’s right. There are Skinny Girls without Tits and Skinny Girls with Tits. When I take my shirt off the guys always go, Wow, where did these come from. I take sample size, what they use with the models. I used to never wear bras but then this woman, she works as a lingerie executive, she turned me on to them and now I always get them from her.
The eyes are clouded, opaque with tawny olive drab, silt stirred up in the water and it doesn’t settle. It’s hard to see what they are up to when they are not busy giving looks and stuff. Like some kind of substance, when absent-minded the eyes become so mattery. The muddy color gives them depth. Like the thickness of a layer of material, you could almost indicate between your thumb and index how much of it there is. That’s what reminds you of the bruises: it’s the quantity under the skin. Not the everyday polish of eyes, that mirror gleam with the immaterial space behind, unmeasured. The bruises lack the wetness, though, with their real-life skin they are quite dull. But I wonder, if they could roll like eyeballs and were behind her shiny glasses, would they begin to look witty and sparkle in conversation?
I have this satin teddy, it’s very sexy, really, you should see it. My roommate, he doesn’t like girls but one time I was wearing this teddy and he said, Gee, that looks hot, and he went over to his room. Head cocked, she sucks the root of her thumb, kinda silly awe in her smile. That came with his sentence, I take it. Then some other time we are fucking and I see her sucking the root of her thumb.
On this muggy day we had fucked up a good sweat.
—Didn’t you get turned on by my socks?
—I didn’t notice. I look to where her ankles are. In white, she still has them on.
—Oh, you’re helpless with the visuals, she says.
The body is a coathanger and on it you put your fantasies. It sure is the fastest way to personalize people you have just met. The clues you are spending come out of your own stock, but some people soak them up real fine. The time she came to pick up the check from my neighbor who had gone out of town she sat on the floor massaging her ankle. The relationship began and ended with payments. She was of light bones and frail with the grayishness of one who hadn’t been out of the house much, or an illness she had forgotten to wash off. I figured she was to be liked and why didn’t I like her better? When I ran into her at my loading dock all in white and with a tan it wiped out the meager unhealthy part, the one where she was diminished.
The time she came upstairs to tell me about writing, she had always been writing in those years and all the talk now was standing up shifting legs getting to different parts of the loft and the words whirring. The thing about standing up is that the people are parallel and on their feet, it’s the walking and the alignment. Upright bodies with no furniture on them are easy to fit together, all you have to do is take the space out and then the one becomes the lining on the other, the postures match. Did you ever notice how flat people are when they are standing up and how liquid their gestures are, I mean not whether they have bulges but how everything is stretched out in the same direction, the spine and legs and arms and face all just about in one plane? Often there are arms out front or across but fleeting and it would be easy for the gestures to just run off the body or flow over to the other as the people drew close and became still.
So she and I were talking and drifting around with this spatial arrangement like we were roped to some umbilical broomhandle axis. Obviously it only happens between practically strangers and not if they hit the sack at the first flash of the idea or go smooching. It’s like they are filling the gap with ectoplasm, I don’t actually believe in ectoplasm but here it is useful for getting on with the sentence, and if you are facing each other in a restaurant strapped to the chairs it can’t manifest itself, there is nowhere for the ectoplasm to go, the table is lodged in that space or the space is vested in the table and the ectoplasm won’t come out and then other things happen, they are in the tone of voice, in expressions or heavy looks, or it may get into the subject matter but then it’s a hard luck case, what you might call distress conversation. That’s sedentary life, it’s really different. The ectoplasm likes pacing, courtship locomotion. It’s at that time, too, that you come out with your life story in chunks and rushes. This must be for making the trust so you can give up the space between you.
Forget about tables. Let’s say you go over to someone in a chair, you bend down and it just isn’t a good match, geometrically speaking and of volumes. You are arching away from each other, building a ring out of thighs and chests. This way you get to keep a lot of your surface to yourself, kind of chaste, what you have is knees on knees and heads to heads, and the hands and shoulders, or the hands you can put them in special sexy places but that’s like reaching through a window and not like being in the same tent. Depending on what the chair is like, there isn’t much you can do, it’s sort of a dead end and you have to both drop what you are doing and get up and start over Ever try to hold someone in your arms while getting up from a chair? At this point what’s missing in contiguity shows in continuity: in order to close the gap between the bodies you have to step over a gap in time. That accounts for the false-start flavor in bending over the chair, it’s sketchy, a gesture and beyond it extends a purpose; like talk, it says what it wants but it isn’t what it says.
Schuldt divides his time between New York City and his native Germany where he published about a dozen books of poetry, essays and fiction. He writes in both English and German.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.