The Minotaur

The Minotaur

In the early part of the twentieth century, Chinatown was entirely contained within twenty-four airless square blocks of South Square bounded on the east and west by Hidalgo and Harrison Streets, and north and south by Davidson Street and Washington Square South. In all four directions Chinatown stopped at the curb’s edge, so that the thoroughfares themselves remained wholly American, and for cars passing through or pedestrians on the far side of the street the buildings fronting the Chinese side were as impenetrable as medieval castle walls, and the asphalt as effective as any moat. To casual observers, the perfectly gridded streets that passed through Chinatown were almost invisible, hidden behind the lights and streamers and signs and commotion of that wall.

Racist zoning practices coupled with the immigrant instinct to huddle for safety conspired to quickly overcrowd the neighborhood, and so the buildings of Chinatown grew taller, and the apartments inside them were subdivided with an intensity that violated all of the city’s tenement laws but went unnoticed by city officials and unreported by Chinatown’s citizens.

This city-within-a-city was an amalgam of early industrial America and the waning Chinese empire that would later serve as a source of intoxicating nostalgia but which at the time was considered both a mystery and a nuisance. It was accepted as fact by children outside of Chinatown that the Chinese had even moved into the sewers and built small cave-like apartments just above and around the effluence. (In truth, many of Chinatown’s manhole covers were missing, but this was more the result of municipal neglect than anything else–the value of scrap metal in those days was such that manhole covers were stolen all over the city, even in the more genteel parts, but the city was quick to replace them.)

Within this community people lived and grew and married and died, and dramas large and small were seeded, flowered, and withered. The stories rarely if ever attracted notice beyond the imaginary boundaries of Chinatown, but with those twenty-four blocks the stories were common knowledge, the names and dates passed around like precious heirlooms, and the repercussions studied with exquisite scholarship.

Helen Fan was born in a fourth-floor apartment on Belgrano Street in 1894. She attended Public School 18 on Moreno Street, which still stands as Dr. Sun Yat Sen Elementary School; and the adjacent High School 9, which was torn down in the 1960s. Her parents worked at a shop on Belgrano Street, and she married a butcher from Santander Street and they moved into an apartment next door. This was the extent of her world, entirely contained in within a five minute walk.

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My Year in Books

My Year in Books

A few years ago I started to keep track of the books I read because I noticed that I wasn’t reading as much as I wanted to, and perhaps if I kept track then I wouldn’t spend so much time watching dogs eating tacos on YouTube. I still don’t read as much as I could, and this year I had a few false starts (I don’t count books I’ve only half-read). But here is what I read this year, in order of completion.

1. “Hardheaded Weather” by Cornelius Eady

I started 2016 by taking a weeklong trip–beginning January 1st at about 3:00 AM–and I needed a few books for the trip. Because I wasn’t sure of what to expect in terms of free time, I decided to go with poetry, because I could then have the option of immersing myself if I had lots of time or dipping my toes if I only had a few minutes. (I did bring along a few novels, just in case.) I don’t remember at all why I picked Cornelius Eady; perhaps the cover just appealed to me.

Anyway, it was a fantastic start to the year. Once I finally had a chance to read it, I read it cover-to-cover twice. Then I came back to it several times since then. What begin as small, almost trite, observations about daily gather in emotional force rather quickly. “My Mother, If She Won Free Dance Lessons” immediately inspired me to write a story (which I don’t think was any good, or I didn’t finish it, or something). “Song” devastated me so much I had to find somebody to read it out loud to. I’m not sure if my audience was appreciative or just humored me. It didn’t matter to me in the end anyway. I just needed to share it.

If you have twenty minutes to spare, watch Cornelius Eady read some of his work here.

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4. In Which Our Heroine Is Rudely Awoken, Or Perhaps Awakened

4. In Which Our Heroine Is Rudely Awoken, Or Perhaps Awakened

When the phone rang, Erica was deep in a dream. She was on a train, or maybe it was a car. It changed back and forth, actually. In either case she was in France, and she and her dream friends kept asking each other how to say things in French. Except that Erica didn’t speak French, so the answers were always in Spanish, which even her dream-self thought was cheap and lazy. In the train or car they zoomed through traffic but also ordered snacks from the waiter. She assumed that in France the good trains had some kind of service, like an airplane. There was no such thing on Amtrak, which were the only actual trains Erica had ever been on. Amtrak did have a restaurant car, but even Erica at her hungriest balked at paying nine dollars for a poorly microwaved hamburger.

She was eating what was either escargot or a croque monsieur but was really a plate of French fries when the phone rang, announcing that she was at her stop or was being stopped by the police but really telling her that her phone was ringing, and judging from the sound she had left it on the kitchen counter, which meant its battery would be nearly dead by now.

Also, she had to run through the obstacle course of her room to get to the door and into the kitchen. The phone was at nine percent. “Hello?”

Silence on the other end. No, not quite silence. Slow breathing. But not in a scary way, like a serial killer trying to get into her head. More like somebody dialed and then forgot to talk.

“Hello?”

“I’m mad at you,” the caller said in between annoyed sighs. It was Anthony.

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Around the year in a world 

Around the year in a world 

I started 2016 by getting into a car at four in the morning and driving from North Carolina to Florida. I’m going to ring the year out next week in my cute little house in Kampala, Uganda. In the twelve months in between I visited the Virgin Islands (British and American) and a resort in the Bahamas; I crossed Uzbekistan in a mix of planes, trains, and automobiles (not in that order but I couldn’t resist); left my wonderful apartment in Almaty, Kazakhstan (where I set an all-time record for the longest I’ve ever lived in one house in my life: three years, seven months, ten days); spent a fantastic summer bouncing up and down the East Coast (no real parenthetical to add here); and settled into my new life on a new continent.

In between there were a lot of good days, a small handful of bad days, quite a few great days, and some rather painful moments, most of them mercifully brief, that I will probably dwell on for years to come. Such is life.

The coming of a new year begs reflection. Something is ending, more substantive than an hour or a day, less complete than a life. Life goes on, essentially unchanged, but in a new book.

And after a year’s worth of churning and turning we’re right back at January, where we started. This time we can try to get it right, or at least better.

Bartolomeo

Bartolomeo

Bartolomeo Evangelio de Garzas y Torreo arrived in Cartagena after a journey across the sea that most men would have recalled as the adventure of a lifetime. Bartolomeo put it out of mind almost the moment he stepped on dry land, so that years later the entire chapter was covered thusly: “We sailed from Almeria on a Sunday and arrived in Cartagena before the start of Lent.”

The fortress city of Cartagena overflowed with the fabled riches of the New World. Gold dangled from every earlobe and around every neck. Even the rudest citizens seemed weighted down with jewels. The city’s taverns filled the night air with the sound of men spending fortunes on fleeting pleasure, and the churches glistened with the generosity of their shame.

Bartolomeo had been warned not to be seduced by the city. “What you see there is barely a taste of what lies at El Dorado.” In Cordoba he had met a man with an incredible tale, a man who had been captured by Indians and taken to their capital deep in the jungle. It was a city made entirely of gold, from the dizzying heights of its ziggurats to the earth beneath their feet. The man claimed to have lived there for years, to have married a pagan and sired four children before he became homesick and asked to returned to the white men on the coast. He returned to Spain, but along the way became overcome with regret. Now he was too old to return, and begged for help retrieving his lost family. “I wish for them to be brought her, to become Christians and live in the glory of His salvation.” In exchange he offered directions to the golden city.

Bartolomeo heard his tale and dismissed him at first, but the man’s sincerity touched him, and Bartolomeo took a little time to investigate his circumstances. Much of his story could be corroborated, and interviews with others who had gone to the New World convinced Bartolomeo that the old man’s claim were worth investigating. He offered to find the man’s pagan children, and the man gave him a detailed account of how to find the city of gold.

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