Tuesday, July 29, 2014

At the Coffee Shop, Part 3

Debbie Reynolds and her son are arguing.
“How could you do this to me?” He leans dangerously over his buttered bagel. “I would never do this to you!”
Debbie is staring over his left shoulder at the coffee shop menu posted on the wall. Today’s special is half a tuna salad sandwich, a bowl of tomato soup, a medium drink and a tiny, organic apple.
“Never!” he says.
Debbie--my name for her--is a stylish 80-something-year-old whom I see, with her son, every day at the coffee shop. She is perfectly coiffed and made-up, a vision in pastel slacks and a flowery blouse. She wears long earrings and many bracelets, and her small teeth are very white. She bespeaks the elegance of earlier days.
Her son, not so much. He is paunchy, red-nosed and veiny. He is constantly on his cell phone and has a homeless look to him, and now that he wears a new haircut, he looks like a homeless man with a cell phone and a new haircut. He has only spoken three words to me since I’ve started coming to the coffee shop. He told me, “I’m from Brooklyn.” At the time I didn’t know whether this was a secret code phrase like, “I’m a friend of Bill’s,” or “Boolah boolah,” so I smiled and nodded. A few days later I noticed both his jacket and the T-shirt he wears say Brooklyn on them, so I guess his minimal utterance was simply a statement of fact.
In time he quiets down a bit and Debbie says, “I didn’t mean anything by it.” She is cutting her morning scone with a knife and fork, making tiny, bite-size pieces. He is stuffing most of the bagel in his mouth and chewing with his mouth open. She dabs at her lips with a paper napkin. “It’ll be all right. I’m sure.” He shrugs, unconvinced.
In the booth behind mine I can hear a women hissing into her phone. “All I want is the truth!  The truth! Not lies!”
She’s also in her twilight years; she wears no makeup and her hair is a frizzled grey mass wrestled into a bun. There’s a cane on her table, a copy of the Falls Church Tribune, and  several noted scribbled in pencil. She’s a regular too, there every day at 6:45, which is generally the time I arrive after my session at the gym.
“Why is it so hard to tell the truth, I ask you? Why? Why?”
The last why is a plaintive moan.
I could probably answer her question. People lie because they can, I think, and once the lie is out there, it breeds other lies. I say nothing; my explanation would be less than satisfactory.
There are other regulars too, including a mean-looking motorcycle cop with a shaven head and a jutting chin. He wears shiny black Gestapo boots that stop just short of his knees. He comes in everyday with another cop, a young girl with a shoulder patch that reads “Parking Enforcement,” and I think that can’t be much of a fun job, handing out parking tickets in a small town.  Once I approached them wanting to ask if they could arrest the coffee shop manager for playing really horrible music early in the morning but when I got near their table the mean-looking cop glared at me and I thought better of it, so the music continued, a teeth-grinding all-string version of Guantanamera played really loud. The cops weren’t listening, I guess.
Today the neck-brace lady was there too. My African friend behind the counter said she apparently tripped over her shih tzu and severely damaged herself. The shi tzu had two broken ribs and healed quickly.  
Want more Epiphanettes? www.sagnier.com

Thursday, July 24, 2014

It's All Fiction

You read it here first, and it’s pithy enough to be remembered. Writing, by being interpretive, can’t be anything but an invention, not matter how well-researched or objective.

I came by this realization recently at a used book store in Philadelphia. More than ten thousand books, many with obsessive footnoting and references to other, earlier works. Now certainly, had I been willing to do some research, I could have found the referenced works and inspected their footnotes, which would have led me to more fanatical and neurotic explorations... ad nauseam. But every single word written by all the authors and their sources were their words, the ones they thought best described the situation. And no two writers will ever see the exact same thing and describe it in the same manner. What is a bright fall day for me is the beginning of a dismal winter for you. So it’s all fiction.

And think of this: What, if the research assumed to be correct is wrong? More fiction. So what we have is a basic fact: every biography, investigative or history book, every scientific tome and learned volume purporting to tell us anything at all, is basically a work of fiction. We cannot write, or paint or sculpt absolutes.

To me, this is magnificently entertaining because I like subjectivity. I am much more interested in how things are perceived than how they really are, and anyway, I have a pretty strong suspicion that no one has a clue as to what really is. We just like to think we do...

How amazing. Rene Magritte was right. It wasn’t a pipe at all, just one man’s idea of what a pipe is supposed to look like. That makes my day.


Thursday, July 17, 2014


A couple of weeks back I was with a friend and we commented that we seldom, if ever, got the second look anymore. The second look, should it need to be defined, is exactly that: the look given after the first passing glance; the look—more often than not from the opposite sex—that seeks more information without overtly asking for it. It is sometimes surreptitious, no more than a glance, and other times honest and enquiring, a bold stare like the one I got in an elevator a few years ago when a middle-aged woman asked me if I was moving into the building, then said, “Too bad,” when I said I wasn’t.
The disappearance of the second look is a subtle change in a man’s—and a woman’s—life for it implies that we have moved from the arena where gender matters to the one where it does not. We have become largely faceless, and people begin to call us “sir” and “ma’am.” The attractiveness and sexual energy we relied upon to make contact with our opposites is just about gone, and the smiles we might garner are the same as those a cute and well-behaved toddler might get.
When does this happen? And do we cause it by somehow giving up our claim to life, or does it simply occur in spite of our best efforts?
Some days ago I heard a not-at-all-pleasant woman in her mid-60s bemoan the fact that she lacks a boyfriend and I wondered if the sourness of her disposition chased men away, or was it the lack of men that caused her unhappiness? Or had she simply become invisible, another divorced dyed-haired matron with a Barbara Bush hairdo, back problems and a collection of Trader Joe shopping bags?
I see old men in felts hats wearing their pants halfway up their chests and find it impossible to believe they ever got a first look, never mind a second one. But they must have, otherwise many of us would not be here. Often they’re walking alone, widowers or divorcees perhaps, carrying their solitude like heavy knapsacks. They read the local paper without interest, linger endlessly over a cup of coffee, and return to the same franchise breakfast place two or three times a day.  There is one man I have seen nearly every day for a year, and though I made some efforts to speak with him on more than one occasion, his loneliness is so physically intense that words don’t get through. He stands in front of the Post Office hours on end, smoking one cigarette after another. His skin is parchment-like and dry as a stick, He politely opens the door for women as if this small act might render him visible again, but he ignores men, looks through us as if we are not there. I often wonder if he’s waiting for a letter, for word from somewhere not here that will allow him to relink his life to those of others.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Being French

It’s a pretty well established truism that, given the opportunity, everybody would want to be French.
France, gramme for gramme and mètre for mètre, is just about the coolest place on earth. Restaurants to die for, art no one else has (the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, the Thinker), great and walkable cities, topless beaches peopled with folks that should be topless, except in August when the great unwashed and overweight-sausage eaters from that Northern-Country-no-one-likes take over. Also, we discovered radium. I could go on and on. The Brits have Shakespeare; we have Molière, Corneille and Racine, and a few others whose names I’ve forgotten. For a while, France was the gold standard of everything from food to fashion.
True, we didn’t win all our wars, but then again, neither has the US. The aroma of some of our cheeses will clear a large room, and our cars are either a century ahead of all others (the Citroen Maserati) or somewhat behind the times (the Renault.) We managed to pull off one of the great marketing schemes of modern times by foisting on others our Beaujolais Nouveau, a largely tasteless and pale young wine most French people don’t want; through ingenious manipulation of the oenophiles worldwide, we have made the rest of the planet believe the Beaujolais Nouveau is a rare and tasty treat well worth waiting for, and every year we manage to send most of it out of the France before it can pollute our palates.
We invented mopeds, windsurfers, disposable lighters, Gauloise and Gitane cigarettes, Braille,  cinéma noir and cinéma vérité, existentialism, Art Deco, oral sex, the Tour de France, the oboe, roulette, the metronome, latex, chrome, modern dentistry, the hypodermic needle, antibiotics, taxicabs, parachutes, SCUBA gear, outboard motors, the bayonet, smokeless powder and the tank. Oh, and we deciphered the Rosetta Stone.
All this, though, pales when compared to our greatest achievement, La Marseillaise. We have, hands down, the absolutely best national anthem ever written in the history of the entire world.  Not for us vague and useless bombs bursting in air, or a gracious queen, or verdant native earth. Everyone has that. We do not allow for defeatism (Poland Has Not Yet Succumbed) or idle boasts (The Portuguese, Heroes of the Sea, Noble Race.) Nor do we have to claim a public spirit award (Respect for Citizenship Is Strong in Our Ethiopia), or our ability to control minds (O! Dispenser of India’s Destiny, Thou Art the Ruler of the Minds of all People.)  
Not ujs.  We go for the guts. Allow me to translate the first verse of Monsieur Rouget de Lisle’s composition. In French, it is:
Allons enfants de la patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé
Contre nous de la tyrannie
L'étendard sanglant élevé
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes,
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras
Egorger nos fils, nos compagnes!
Aux armes, citoyens!
Formez vos bataillons!
Marchons! Marchons!
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!
In English, it becomes,
Arise children of the fatherland
The day of glory has arrived
Against us tyranny's
Bloody standard is raised
Listen to the sound in the fields
The howling of these fearsome soldiers
They are coming into our midst
To cut the throats of your sons and consorts
To arms citizens
Form your battalions
March, march
Let impure blood
Water our furrows
It amazes me that there hasn’t been some strange bloody Gothic movie based on our national anthem. Forget the amber waves of grain; we have slit throats and blood in our furrows.
Need I say more?