The Man Behind the Table

I remember my first Dutch lesson as if it were yesterday. I felt like a teenager daring a flirt at a bar, all awkward and inadequate, but eager to make a good impression, as I tried out sounds that had equivalent to the ones I ordinarily used. I even wondered for a moment or two whether it was a mistake to start on this project at all (“He’s out of my league, why am I bothering?”). But my sense of inadequacy was outweighed in the end by the pleasure I had of actually saying something in the language, even if it was very simple: I described a picture of a man sitting behind a table with a book in his hand: Een man zit achter de tafel. Er heeft een boek in zijn hand.

I remember all my first language lessons vividly. Even now, many years later, I can recall the dialogue from my first French lesson in high school, which began with a child asking his mother, Maman, dînons-nous en ville ce soir? The phrase made a huge impression on me at the time. I thought the French must be terribly sophisticated if a 12-year old could ask if they were going to have dinner in town. My family and I rarely dined out (which was a word we didn’t use anyway), and only on special occasions, like a grand-aunt’s birthday or my jockey cousin winning at the racetrack, and then I didn’t need to ask where we were going because we always went to the same restaurant.

This initial exposure to the foreign language, this first dialogue, seemingly so innocent, so lightweight, with the most basic of words and expressions, always seems to leave a lasting impression on students. I only know because I used to teach English and would ask my students if they remembered. Many did. The beginners’ textbook we used started with a dialogue of a rock climber who had lost his footing and slipped to a narrow footing. There was a picture of him perched on this sliver of a landing, his fingers wedged into the rockface as he held on to life and limb. The first word in English my students heard was “Help!” I still wonder what image of America this communicated to my students. (Curiously enough, the textbook we were using for Dutch is called Kunt u mij helpen? — Can you help me?)

My first Dutch lesson began differently but even more dramatically. Or rather, more theatrically. My teacher held up a pen and announced to me, Dit is een pen. She said it as if she were revealing a sacred object, the relic of a saint perhaps or an obscure surgical instrument used in esoteric rituals. Dit is de tafel, she said, pointing to where we were sitting. She made it sound as if it were an altar, making me forget for a moment that we were in her son’s bedroom and the item of furniture wasn’t a table but her son’s desk. In her priestess voice, it was a table. Ik wijs de tafel aan. Dit is de tafel. This was the table, no doubt about it. The table where it is all going to happen.

She laid the pen on the desk. Ik leg de pen aan de tafel. She fell silent for a moment and added, De pen ligt op de tafel. She made it sound as if the pen that lay on the table had gotten there by an act of teleportation. She reached for a small bag, not really a purse, more like a zip-up vinyl pencil case. It may have been her son’s. She opened it and put the pen inside. Ik doe de pen in de tas. And then out. Ik pak de pen uit de tas. Like a magician at a children’s party, she repeated the process of situating and de-situating things with other objects, each time adding a few more motions. This was plot development!

Then it got personal. She announced her movements, one by one, as if reading directions from a script. “I am sitting in the chair. I am standing up. I’m walking toward the door. I’m opening the door.” Ik zit op de stoel. Ik sta op. Ik loop naar de deur. Ik doe de deur open. She walked out of her son’s room toward the kitchen. I tried to be polite and not look beyond the door into more of her family’s private space but I was thinking maybe I should look because if she disappeared into the kitchen I would certainly want to hear what came next. She had me Yes, what came next! With this sequence of simple sentences and a few well-timed gestures, she had me on the edge of my seat—which I almost could have said in Dutch that day. I was enchanted.

Eventually she came back to her seat (after going to the window and opening and closing it a few times). She looked at me and said Nu pakt u de pen. I did as I was told and took the pen (the u was a tipoff). Pak het boek. I took the book from her hands. Leg het boek op de taafel, naast de pen. Doe het boek open. She raised her hands and extended six fingers and motioning to the book with her thumb and said, Op bladzijde zes. Nu geef me het boek. I don’t know why I had to open the book to page six before I gave it to her, but I did what I was told.

I yielded myself up to her firm but reassuring voice. She could have told me to take my shoes off and whirl myself around like a Sufi mystic and I would have done it, though of course I wouldn’t have understood anything so sophisticated. I would have done it happily because I was on some very basic level communicating. Well, in the sense of following instructions, which is in fact an authentic task, even if in real life nobody would ask you to put a pen in a bag or walk to the door.

Next, she showed me some photocopies of paintings. Portraits by Frans Hals. A man. A woman in a white lace cap and fur-trimmed black gown with a starched white ruff. A man, also with a ruff. Group portraits, she said, of four women and of five men. Dit zijn vier vrouwen. Dit zijn vijf mannen. (I recognized them as the Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse and the Regents of the St Elizabeth Hospital of Haarlem, respectively, but didn’t say anything. It was enough she had slipped in the first plurals of the afternoon). The photocopies really didn’t do justice to Hals’ paintings and lots of details were lost, but they would have been lost on me anyway if my tutor had described them to me in Dutch. As it was I had a hard time figuring out who was standing achter de tafel, who voor de tafel and who naast de tafel; they all seemed to me be around the table, but that was the nerd in me speaking.

I loved the exercise. Talking about paintings with my friends is something I do in real life, and again this seemed to be real communication. It was a bit of a struggle to suppress my over-achieving self , who wanted to talk about why the regents were looking in different directions. But learning a language means being content with a little. The beginners’ world is necessarily one of simple feelings, basic impressions and unambiguous likes and dislikes. Films become “interesting” or “awful”. Your sharp-witted yet compassionate friend is flattened into “a nice guy”. You like a painting or you don’t.

Still, I did talk about a painting, even if in the crudest of terms. My first impressions of the Dutch language were now linked to drama and painting and philanthropy. And that was not a bad way to start.

This text is adapted from something I wrote the day after I had this lesson. With the start of the spring semester, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of the first day of class, and decided to resurrect it. I’ve also just resumed Dutch lessons. Much time had passed since this day with the pens and desk and Regents, so I had to start again with the basics but —alas! —without the drama and the paintings.


Reading to Write

Writers and writing teachers often advise novice writers to read widely so that they may write better. “Read, read, read!” urged William Faulkner, when asked in an interview for The Western Reserve what the best training for a writer is.[1] “Read everything —trash, classics, good and bad; see how they do it. When a carpenter learns his trade, he does so by observing. Read! You’ll absorb it.”

This is bad advice, but it is frequently given. Stephen King, for example, claims that “if you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.[2] Two sentences later, he confesses that as a young writer he read out of pleasure and not a desire “to study the craft.”   Nonetheless, he is sure that “there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.” He does not elaborate on how this learning takes place, whether it is automatic or deliberate, or, as Faulkner suggested, simply a matter of observing and absorbing.

Admittedly, this notion of reading extensively to absorb the practices of effective writers has a certain attractiveness. It sounds much like the immersion method of learning a foreign language: all you need is an environment with a lot of exposure to the language—a year abroad or a native-speaker lover—and you will gradually “absorb” what you need to know. Consequently, to be a better writer, expose yourself to a lot of well-written prose. 

But if immersion works for learning a foreign language, it is not simply because we have extensive, frequent, and varied input, together with the linguistic and cognitive structures of our own language that accelerate learning. We need more than this. I know I could eventually learn Dutch by living in the Netherlands, without formal language instruction, without a tutor, perhaps even without a textbook or grammar—provided I not only listened to but also interacted with other speakers (admittedly a challenge given how quickly the Dutch launch into English when a foreigner tries to address them in their language).

Interaction gives me important feedback on how well I am achieving my communicative goal. I can gauge, even from the early stages of learning the language, when gestures fill in for missing words and trial-and-error compensates for mangled grammar, if I am being understood. As I grope towards understanding the other and making myself understood, these iterative corrections, even when they are as simple as a puzzled look, help me adjust my course and “feel my way” towards meaning. The environment is “fertile”, that is, conducive to immersive learning because it is rich in terms of language input but also because the feedback that I, as an apprentice speaker of the language, receive from master speakers provides cues with which I can adapt my behavior and learn. The environment of the written text, on the other hand, gives no such real-time feedback.

To return to Faulkner, there is a fundamental difference between the apprentice carpenter, who observes the master in the act of working with his wood to produce a chair or bookcase, and the “apprentice writer”. Unlike working a lathe or painting or making music (but like composing music), writing is not usually an observable act. We see only the finished work, the textual equivalent of a finely crafted oak table or porticoed house. The apprentice writer is a fiction because there is no master to be apprenticed to.

If we cannot observe the master carpenter at work, then perhaps we could reconstruct this labor from the finished product, as David Jauss, a short-story writer and the director of the MFA program of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, suggests:

Reading won’t help you much unless you learn to read like a writer. You must look at a book the way a carpenter looks at a house someone else built, examining the details in order to see how it was made[3].

Jauss’s counterpart at Princeton decades earlier, the poet and critic Allen Tate, had also written about reading, writing, and buildings. In an article in The Princeton Alumni Weekly in 1940, he described his experience teaching Creative Writing in the university’s Creative Arts Program, one of the first in the country. Tate was convinced that writing could not be taught, and so rather than designing and teaching a standard writing course with grades and mandatory readings and assignments, he formed a “Creative Writing group”. While students could submit and discuss their manuscripts with Tate in private sessions, the group’s meetings were dedicated to close readings of creative writing; in his words, “we try to read a certain poem as if we were writing it.” This meant, in part, seeing how the text was constructed.

There are many ways to read, but generally speaking there are two ways. They correspond to the two ways can trace the origin and development of Corinthian columns; we are interested as historians. But if we are interested as architects, we may or may not know about the history of the Corinthian style; we must, however, know all about the construction of the building, down to the last nail or peg in the beams. We have got to know this if we are going to put up buildings ourselves[4].

What is this fascination that writers have with carpenters and architects, I wonder? Is it because we can see writerly equivalents to laying a foundation, raising load-bearing beams and girders, fitting together bricks or slabs of cementer. Or is it that we picture the writer as the builder-architect who gives order to the text, ensures that the components are well-integrated, and outfits it with the details and well-founded evidence that enables the text to stand and function.  Perhaps, again, it is because houses have style and contain the possibility of beauty in a way that machines, at least for most people (wrongly so, in my view), do not.

Or, in the end, is it more the idea of the architect’s passage from sketches to site and floor plan drawings? Are we drawn to the clarity and logic of the architectural plan that we see evidenced in the built structure, and see parallels to the structural beauty, seamless coherence, and argumentative logic of the finished text?

Writers do make plans, of course. They create outlines and mind maps and develop storyboards, Journalists have their nut-graphs, copywriters their 4 P’s. These are all tools that can be taught to novice writers, though they will need to be aware that these plans are almost certain to change as they write and develop their argument.

If the final text seems to reflect a masterfully elaborated outline, it does so as an artefact of the writing process, a post-hoc attribution of an initial order that never existed. What we read is a palimpsest of redraftings. The final text incorporates and at the same time conceals the decisions the writer has made along the way, all the excisions and revisions it has undergone, the paring down and the fleshing out, the words reshaped or shifted, and the absent words, too (as David Mamet said, “omission is a form of creation”). 

The text contains its own history, but one which can only be inferred. Only the writer knows this history; as Margaret Atwood once said, “[writers] have been backstage and know how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat.[5]” We, as readers, only see the rabbit come out of the hat. Of course, we can try to work out how the trick was done. But if you are adept at such inference and can see the decisions the writer has made in the text you are reading, you are likely already a proficient writer.  If you can’t see these decisions, exposure on its own won’t get you there.

It is not only the writer’s sleights of hand that we miss, but also the times the writer got into and, more importantly, out of trouble. Since the published text leaves no record of the expert writer’s acts of recovery it is of no help to novice writers when they get into trouble themselves. Which they easily do when they lose track of their thesis (or start without one) and write themselves into dead-ends.  The final text is again too good a model for imitation learning[6].

We once could glimpse these recovery acts through the cross-outs, insertions, and arrowed transpositions writers made on their manuscripts and galley proofs.  Marcel Proust was a prodigious editor, sometimes redrafting entire passages as he read the proofs of his manuscripts. Without annotation, however, these edits are difficult to decode.

A page from Marcel Proust’s notebooks for In Search of Lost Time, Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Proust himself did not think his corrections offered much insight into his writing. In a letter he wrote to his friend Sydney Schiff and which is now in the collections of the University of Illinois Rare Book & Manuscript Library, he wrote:

It is not very pleasant to think that anybody (if people still care about my books) will be allowed to consult my manuscripts, to compare them to the definitive text, to infer from them suppositions that will always be wrong about the way I work, the evolution of my thinking, etc.

Proust realized that the galley proofs and notebook entries offered a partial and misleading look into the process of composing. They did not capture what was on the verge of being written but was lost or rejected before committed to paper, all the phrases that never succeeding in bridging the gap between conception and action, that critical moment when the writer paused to complete or extend his thought and then withdrew the gambit before pen touched paper again. Who knows what sheets of paper were burned after a day of writing?

Let us assume for a moment, though. that we could see the writer live in action. What would it look like and would be helpful?[7]

The linearity of the text, the sense we have when reading it that we are moving or being led towards a terminus, makes us believe that the method of its composition was also straightforward. We might be tempted to think that live-streaming the writer at work would be instructive, too.

But writing involves too much recursion and revision for a screen capture to be of much use. Certainly, it would be a trying exercise visually, since most of the changes would probably be at too fine a level of detail, with the cursor hopping around the screen like a flea in a Looney Tunes cartoon. But now and then we would see more dramatic moments—a sentence vanishing only to reappear a few sentences earlier in the text, a block of text highlighted and made to disappear, a word backspaced out of existence to make way for a more synonym. 

The straight-forward-ness of a well-written text belies the disorder through which it was created. We are deceived by the text’s flow and directedness, the linguistic stiles and steps that lead us from one idea to another, from tenet and claim to example and evidence and on to the next, the signposting and foreshadowing and backreferencing it does—all that knits together sentences and paragraphs, concepts and arguments into a line of thought or line of argument.

But our thoughts rarely spring forth from the mind finely articulated and in full armor, as Athena did from the head of Zeus. They begin more as half-shaped or fragmentary entities, which are then shaped and reworked—rethought—as one writes and new ideas emerge.  

In a remarkably prescient essay written in 1987 and titled Does Writing Have a Future? Vilém Flusser defined writing as the bringing of order to thought.

Writing is a gesture that aligns and arranges ideas. Anyone who writes must first have thought. And written signs are the quotation marks of right thinking. On first encounter, a hidden motive appears behind writing: one writes to set one’s ideas on the right path[8].

Or as Joan Didion famously said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”[9]

This process of bringing order to thought is marked by many false starts, deletions, interpositions, and shifts of words and sentences and whole passages, all of which have been tidied up or swept away before the written product is shown. We can never reconstruct the process by which the text reached its final form; the writer’s path, one of countless possible trajectories, is forever lost to us.

Immersion and imitation are imperfect means to becoming a better writer. What novice writers need is not a model of finely written text on its own, which they cannot emulate, but a model of writing in the service of thought. What counts is not so much the ordered thought as the process of ordering thought.

If the finished text does not directly reveal the writer’s decisions that went into its composition, we can—if we are skilled and careful readers—reverse engineer its composition to some extent. We can discern from the text at least a structure and (re)construct the argument, locate its main points, and trace the ways in which they are then elaborated. We can analyze how the text works on an organizational and rhetorical level, section by section, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, asking for each: what is this doing here? How effectively does it serve the writer’s purpose? How convincing is it? How does this bit follow from what has been said before and lead to what is said next? With what cohesive links, logical bridges, and devices of recapitulation and anticipation does the writer tie the text and its components together? Where has the writer anticipated her reader’s questions and where she is marshalling evidence to buttress her point? What is missing from the text and what is in it that could have been left out?

Granted, these are not questions that students usually ask when they read or that most are skilled in answering. Most read to understand what the writer is saying rather than question how she is saying it. They may be engaged by what they read, or bored or frustrated, or surprised. They may be made curious or put off, eager to get to the next sentence or tempted to skip ahead. Only attentive readers (and not all the time) will stop to wonder, how did the writer do that? Yet only by helping students acquire this habit of attentive questioning will reading make them better writers.

Featured image: Portrait of Edmond Maitre (The Reader), Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1871.

[1] From “An Interview with William Faulkner” published in The Western Reserve in Summer 1951, reprinted in Conversations with William Faulkner, edited by M. Thomas Inge, 66-72.  (Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 1999).

[2] Stephen King, On Writing (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2012), p. 164.

[3] David Jauss, “Articles of Faith.” In Creative Writing in America: Theory and Pedagogy. Ed. Joseph (Moxley. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1989)

[4] Quoted in J.C.R. “Mr. Tate and the Professors”, The Kenyon Review, vol. 2, no. 3 (Summer, 1940), p. 349.

[5] Margaret Atwood, “Rules for Writers“, The Guardian, Feb 22, 2010.

[6] Knowing how to recover from error is an important part of learning not only for writers but also for neural networks. In his book The Alignment Problem: How Can Artificial Intelligence Learn Values (London: Atlantic Books, 2021), Brian Christian describes the efforts of Carnegie Mellon graduate student Stephane Ross to train a neural network to drive the course of SuperTuxKart,3D, an open-source racer game. The training data consisted of a million frames of Ross’s recorded play. The neural net starts off well but soon drives off the road. The problem, it turns out, was that the network was training on the driving data of an expert who didn’t “get into trouble”. But a novice gamer does, and quite early on.

[7] Henrik Karlsson, an anthropologist and programmer, and author of the fascinating series of essays Escaping Flatland, has described something similar for programmers. He imagines a video stream that allows novice coders to observe code development in real time. The apprentice could pause the playback, try out a solution, and then resume to see how the expert handled it.  A more ambitious scenario envisions developers sharing their coding environment with the apprentice, who can “jump in and code themselves.” Henrik Karlsson, “Apprenticeship online“, Escaping Flatland, Oct. 9, 2021.

[8] Vilém Flusser, Does Writing Have a Future, trans. Nancy Ann Roth, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 6.

[9] Joan Didion, “Why I Write.” New York Times, Dec. 5, 1976

Art, Music, Books & Film

Eluding Destiny

As Roland Barthes once remarked, one may know a photograph from memory better than one observed. For me, Scarlett Coten’s Mohaned is one such image. I discovered it in a feature that LensCulture dedicated to her Mectoub project, an award-winning series of portraits of young Arab men, of which this photograph forms a part. Years later, I could still recall the photograph in all its striking detail.

I remembered, of course, the rose Mohaned holds and its stenciled serialization on the white-washed wall behind him. But I could also recall how this redoubling of man and rose was present in other, more subtle images. I remembered how the curve of the flower was traced along the axis of his slouching body, swooping down from forehead to crotch, how the outline of the rose’s petaled head is repeated in Mohaned’s wavy black hair, the stems of the flowers recapitulated in his long slender fingers, the leaves in the twin ends of his undone scarf. This is not a portrait of a man holding a rose but of a man who has become one.

Clearly the scene has been staged, though less clearly, by whom (who thought to bring the rose, I wonder, photographer or or subject?) It is not by accident that the top of his jeans is perfectly aligned with the edge of inverted sky running across the bottom fifth of the photograph. But the artifice of the tableau is undermined by the irruption of the sensual, as he slouches in his chair, legs splayed, gaze fixed on the camera, waiting.  His spindly fingers bend from the cocked wrist to alight on his thigh, as if his body were an instrument he was set to play.

Mectoub was not the reason I travelled to Paris this summer, but it did determine my departure date. Coten was among the artists whose work was to be exhibited in 2nd Photography Biennale of the Contemporary Arab World last September, affording me the rare chance to see a part of this remarkable project up close instead of online. Ironically, I would never have known that the photo would be among those on exhibition had it not adorned the poster for the show (as it would later the exhibition catalogue). But there he was, Mohaned. I felt as if I had received an invitation.

A work by a white, French-born woman is perhaps an odd choice for publicizing a photography show dedicated to the Arab world, especially when the great majority of the 50 or so photographers featured in the exhibition were Arabs. Why Coten? Jack Lang, the President of Arab World Institute, where most of the show was held, said that he had started the Biennale as a way of revealing the hidden realities of the Arab world. He saw in Coten an artist who revealed the upheaval still at work in the Arab world by rendering visible the boldness of an emancipated generation and the challenges being made to the traditional image of Arab men.

Coten’s work for the project spanned seven countries and took four years to complete. She began it in 2012 in the wake of the Arab Spring and it is perhaps best read in that context. The extroversion implicit in the movement’s demands for democracy, economic equity and government accountability fueled claims for greater personal freedom as well. It called into question not only the established political order but also constructed norms of gender and identity. And it is this remise en cause of gender and identity that animates the portraits in the series.

She met these men as strangers on the street during his travels to Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and other countries, and convinced them to pose for her. Pose is the wrong word, I suppose. From what I have read from interviews she’s given, she gave her subjects no instructions other than not to pose but instead to look at her.

And look they did. Their gaze is a tantalizing mix of vulnerability and sexual energy. It says, come here. These men are supplicants who seduce by art, one ordinarily seen as the purview of women. Indeed, many of these men are photographed in poses one associates with submission or defenselessness—reclining on a bed or couch, for example, or like Mohaned, slouched in a chair, or lying on the floor. But these are not works of Orientalism. Unlike Matisse’s Odalisque in a Turkish Chair, whose head is turned slightly to avert the artist’s gaze, these men look straight into the camera.

Mectoub undermines the gendered dynamic of power at play in the relation between artist and model, not only reversing the roles of each, but also questioning the very notion of the artist’s power over her subject. If these men here have yielded control, they are also winning it back. They are not merely an object of desire but a desiring subject as well, returning the camera’s—and the photographer’s—scrutiny with their own seductive, near brazen gaze. Here, as Paul Hill once said, the photographer is as much bounty as hunter.

Coten rightly calls these portraits an unveiling. The act of self-revelation always implies a metaphorical disrobing—and here, given the number of men who are photographed torse nu, a literal one as well. The mask of traditional male identity they discard (if indeed they have ever worn it) is no less confining than the veil used to conceal the face of a woman.

A subtle homoerotic undercurrent runs through these portraits, only occasionally breaking through the surface, as with Hazem, who is photographed standing in red sequined high heels (which I learned figured in a ballet on gender he had choreographed). The presence of this undercurrent can be sensed in the settings.  While several of the men are photographed in their bedroom or on an ornate sofa, most, like Makarios in Cairo, sprawled on a litter-strewn concrete floor atop coils of white industrial tubing, are shot in places of abandonment—in a rubble-strewn hall of a derelict palace, a disused Renault garage, a weed-choked railway siding.

They are all places removed from public view. The secluded venues enabled Coten to create an intimate setting in which the men, extracted from their familiar milieu of friends, family and coworkers but also from the eyes of the street, could be invited—or in her words, challenged—to reveal themselves. At the same time, however, they are also elements of an industrial landscape in decay that has long been part of the iconography of the sexual encounter, loci of cruising, like the dilapidated piers of New York documented in the work of photographers such as Leonard Fink and Alvin Baltrop.

I’m projecting. I don’t know if Coten was aware of this visual lexicon or would disavow it if she were. But the power of her work is due in part precisely to the multiplicity of readings it allows and the associations it triggers.


Yahia, Tunis, Tunisia, 2014 © Scarlett Coten

I may be the only one to think of Cavafy’s poem One Night upon seeing her portrait of Yahia in Tunis. Coten has photographed the shirtless young man lying on a “common, humble bed” bed in what cc ould be a tiny room in a cheap tradesmen’s hotel, perhaps, I think, like the one on which the poet lay and “had love’s body.” Again this redoubling, Yasia’s tattoos, a mark of rebellion even more marked in Islamic culture (one of the young men she photographed in Algiers was sent to prison for his), refigured in the paint splatters on the wall behind him and the floral imprint of the bedclothes.  Again, the arresting, unplanned punctum, here the arm of the dervish or ankh in Yasia’s pendant resting against his nipple. Again, this unsettling, beguiling mingling of sexual tension and vulnerability. Intimacy among the ruins.

At the same time, there is something celebratory and liberating to these photographs. Mectoub” is a portemanteau of the Arabic mektoub, “it is written” and the colloquial French mec or guy.  In other words, a man’s destiny. An ironic title, for these hauntingly sensual portraits speak of a freedom that seeks to elude destiny.


Featured photo: Mohaned, Alexandria, Egypt, 2013, © Scarlett Coten.

Sexuality and Identity

Tickled Pink

I hear the boys stampeding towards the locker room, the shards of their shouts and high-pitched laughter ricocheting down the cinder block corridor, rending the meditative quiet of the pool that accompanied me during my workout. The loudest of the pack burst in first, just as I finish toweling off; they strip to their swim suits and dash for the showers. By the time I lace up my sneakers, the lone stragglers have arrived, quietly shuffling in on their own, one or two with a scowl that suggests the idea of going to swim camp wasn’t theirs.

I watch them as they exit the showers to cross the obligatory foot pool out to the main pool area. Some start with a running jump and splash into the ankle-deep water, others noisily slosh their way across, like soldiers fording a steam. And then there’s the boy, one of the stragglers, fair-skinned and slight in build, who eases his left foot in first as if to test the water—though he should know by now it’s always ice cold—and then tiptoes through the water for the rest of the distance.

There’s one in every summer camp and Cub Scout troop, the reticent puppy of the litter, the boy who doesn’t like playing rough or getting dirty, who hangs back and off-center, giving wide berth to the other, more rambunctious boys.  By now it’s habit, inscribed in his body, though he can’t be more than 10 years old.

I know because I was one of those boys.

I was vaguely aware I was different from other boys my age, sometimes because I was told so by adults, like the time a teacher took me aside after recess to explain that boys don’t play jump rope, as I had been doing with the girls at recess, and that I should join the other boys in my class who played stickball at the other end of the street.

I knew there were boys like my cousin Gary, who played baseball and wasn’t afraid of the dogs my grandfather kept chained on a runner and would even crawl into their doghouse on a dare, and boys like me, who never went near them and would disappear at the first signs of an impromptu touch football game being organized. There were boys who skipped Mass and cursed and hung out at the sweet shop after school, and there were boys like me, who were altar boys and rummaged the stacks of the city library after school.

Until middle school being different was never a source of pain or discomfort. I didn’t always fit in, but it didn’t matter. Though I envied the ease my brother and cousins had in the presence of my uncles—and their dexterity with bats and balls and gloves—I didn’t want to be like them. My mother told me I was a happy child and judging from my own recollections of those years, I have no reason to doubt her. I was, to borrow language I would not have used or understood at the time, comfortable in my skin.

But that all changed when we moved from the city and I was plunked into the 6th grade of the local public school, where I encountered Jamie Marsh.

I can’t remember the first time he called me a faggot. He called me it so many times during the next two years that all the scenes have merged into one. I tell myself I should be able to remember, since I would have been so shocked to hear it. No one had ever called me names before and besides, I was sure there was nothing girlish about me. Because that was what faggots were, I thought, boys who acted like girls, sick and shameful creatures.

To my horror, he called me it the next day and then again and again. I had only been at this school for a few weeks and was just starting to make friends. Who would want to be friends with a faggot? Would Todd, who was the first and the best friend I had made at school, would he still want to be seen with me?

I lay awake at night trying to discover what it was that Jamie saw in me that I couldn’t see. There must have been a reason he had singled me out. It couldn’t have been because I was scrawny or smart or hopeless at basketball. Todd was all that, too, and he was no tougher than me. And if anyone was girlish, it would have been Billy, with his longish, wispy hair and gentle voice. Why me and not him?

If I had looked harder, of course, I would have seen signs of a more radical difference. I would have remembered how I lingered in the company of a young uncle who looked like James Dean, how I lay awake one night in our attic dormer listening to the breathing of a handsome distant cousin who had come to spend a week at our summer house. But this was before desire had become palpable, before my differentness had acquired the mass and  contours of something more fundamental than taste or interests.

Jamie’s taunts shattered the enchanted innocence that had been my world in the city, and made me conscious of myself in ways I hadn’t been before. I became watchful of how I talked and walked and moved my body. But try as I might I could never identify the trace of faggot in my voice or gesture that perhaps he saw. Even after I came out I continued to think it was my vulnerability—and not any mark of effeminacy—that caught the attention of my demon, who, like most bullies, had a sixth sense for knowing which boy wouldn’t fight back.

Until last year, that is, when my youngest brother Daniel sent me an envelope of photos. They were in a box of memorabilia he had found among my father’s belongings when cleaning the attic.

The pictures bear the marks of their age—the scalloped borders and faded greys, the date scribbled in ink on the back–and they seem somehow more reliable documentary evidence than the unblemished digital record of our lives we now have. One of them was taken at our summer house. I must be about 10. My brother Charlie is on my right, leaning into the picture, taking on the camera like a lineman at scrimmage; in front of us is Daniel, still a toddler, with his round face and enormous eyes locked in a gaze of bewilderment. And then there’s me.

I’m standing tall as if at attention and squinting, my head held high with a broad but tight smile, and, yes, looking a bit prissy, too, like a boy who’d tiptoe through the foot pool. And then another picture, this time at Confirmation. I’m in a white suit, kneeling before a card table my mother had set up in the living room and draped with white cloth. I’m looking down into the missal I hold in my hands, a mix of devotion and delight on my face.  I realize this is the boy that Jamie saw, a willowy angel who would run away from a fight.

I remembered these pictures a month or so ago when I came across a photo of five-year-old Prince George.  It was taken at an airport in Germany, a military one I think, because he’s just stepped into a helicopter. He’s dressed in a neat, checkered shirt and short pants, his legs together, slightly bent at the knees, his arms drawn equally close to the side. His hands are cupping his cheeks, as if to contain the delight swelling within him. He’s utterly, endearingly, contagiously thrilled to be there. It’s not the way most boys would react, but there’s no self-consciousness, much less self-censorship to him. He’s genuinely tickled pink.

It’s a picture many gay men, myself now included, can identify with. As Louis Staples wrote in the New Statesmen, the affinity has very little to do with the young prince’s sexual orientation but with our own recollections of an age of innocence, “those precious years in early childhood when I didn’t know I was supposed to be manly.”

We can never regain that innocence, nor should we want to, for doing so would be nothing more than self-willed blindness, depriving us of the ability to see the hate and structures of prejudice that still impinge on our liberty. But it is one of the great gifts of coming out that we gradually free ourselves from the need to be watchful and feel again that enchantment of being alright in our skin.

Ghilherme Lobo and Fabio Audi in The Way He Looks
Art, Music, Books & Film

The Way He Looks

The Way He Looks is one of those films that you want to rush out and tell your friends about after seeing, as you might a marvelous six-table restaurant you discovered in a part of town that few venture to visit. It’s not great art, although it did garner the Fipresci prize for best feature film in the Panorama (and a Teddy for the best LGBT-themed film) at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival. It won’t change your life or the way you see the world. That said, this enchanting movie of young romance will probably leave you feeling pretty good.

Brazilian director Daniel Ribeiro’s first feature film tells the story of the friendship and budding love between two teenage boys who meet when Gabriel (Fabio Audi), the newcomer to town, enters his new classroom in a middle-class Sao Paolo suburban school and is assigned to sit next to a blind student, Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo).

The Way He Looks is less a coming out story than a tale of coming of age. In a refreshing re-writing of sexual awakening, the two 16-year-olds seem much at ease with their sexuality. The anxiety that ripples through the film as they become aware of their attraction to each other is the same that haunts every young person who falls in love—why doesn’t he or she call, am I being too forward, have I said the wrong things?

Not surprisingly, the notion of seeing and being seen reoccurs throughout the film. Gabriel takes his friend to a park to “see” an eclipse, and describes for him the movement of the sun and moon, and the magical darkness that sets in. He is Leonardo’s narrator at the cinema, and guide at a field trip to a lake. In a telling scene, we see the boys alone in the locker room shower after gym (Leonardo confides to Gabriel that he’s uncomfortable showering with the other boys). Gabriel guides him to a shower head and hands him a bar of soap, and then retreats a few steps, watching as his friend slowly drops his shorts and begins soaping his back. His gaze fixes on his friend’s buttocks until he glances down at his crotch and quickly grabs a towel to cover himself.

The beloved’s gaze is never far away. It stands behind us as we look into the mirror after the morning shower, and seeps into our thoughts throughout the day. Do I please him? It is a question that Leonardo puts to his best friend Giovana, who is as much in love with him as he is with Gabriel. “Am I attractive?” he asks. The irony of the question, posed by such an endearing, handsome teenager, is wrenching.

Leonardo has no “objective” standards against which to compare himself. For him, there is no golden mean of symmetry and proportion that describes the faces of the beautiful we see in art and advertisement. Yes, there are qualities of the beloved’s voice that embody a broader sense of the other’s beauty, the warmth of timbre and attentiveness that suggest desire. And then there is touch. When finally the two young boys kiss, Leonardo’s fingers gently trace the contours of Gabriel’s face to finally see his lover. Of his own beauty, however, he remains unaware. His blindness is a poignant metaphor for the sightlessness of the young lover.  Who among us when first in love, save for the few graced by nature with brilliant beauty (and not even all of those), have not asked themselves the same question? How do l look?

None of the boys’ questions, however, have to do with being gay. That Leonardo and Gabriel are comfortable with their sexuality from the start is part of what makes the film remarkable, given that the struggle to self-acceptance has been a recurrent motif in films about gay youth to date, including such gems as Get Real and Beautiful Thing.

Not surprisingly. Coming out is one of the most defining experiences gay men and women undergo. Whether we suppress or embrace our sexuality, whether we tell all or no one, our desire—and the ever sharpening and ultimately undeniable awareness of our differentness that it engenders—remains an incontrovertible fact of our existence. It cannot but be acknowledged, even if it is not dealt with. Even when the journey from troubled innocence to the community of the initiated is short and relatively free of angst and self-doubt—as Leonardo and Gabriel’s seems to be—it is one we all make, and one made, at least in the beginning, on our own, a rite of passage without guide or catechism. And if our sexual awakening is rooted in an acute sense of not belonging, or perhaps more tellingly, of no longer belonging, we, unlike other initiates, do not yet know much if anything of the community which we will become part of.

Leonardo and Gabriel’s story, however, is not a struggle for self-acceptance but the longing for and pursuit of their first kiss. When and how they have come out to themselves is a backstory the film declines to investigate but instead takes as a given. A simple matter of fact. While the film arguably underplays the real-world difficulties of gay adolescence and blindness both, it is a lyric tribute to what a better world might look like, and what hopefully for some gay teenagers growing up today, already is.


Technology and the Web

Instructions Missing

When we think of assembled objects, we are not likely to think of a concept of self. Instead we picture things like an IKEA bookcase or a model plane or a real-life car, objects that are put together from a finite and pre-determined set of pieces in a particular order and according to specific instructions. The bookcase frame precedes the inner shelf; lose a dowel and the object cannot be completed. There is usually only one way to put the object together and pieces are not usually interchangeable, so assemblers such as DIY enthusiasts, factory workers or robots have very little, if any room for creativity in their projects. Indeed, robots are ideally suited for the low-level tasks of executing the series of straightforward, single instructions that make up the process of assembly.

If the self is assembled on social media, it is not done by design from a preordained, fixed collection of components. There is also no manual, much less an image of the finished product by which to check one’s work. It is do-it-yourself without a set of instructions. However, that is not to say that there is no goal that guides the selection and presentation of identity statements on social media, only that the hoped-for possible self that these statements serve to foster is known in outline alone.

This desired self is perceived obliquely, in broad lines of character that suggest such traits as affability, compassion, resourcefulness, or humor. The assembler may have only the vaguest sense of the entity she is piecing together. It may be the well-liked, triathlete lawyer or the bright, cultivated non-conformist, but a sense of a goal exists, however dimly perceived this persona is. I’m reminded of the iconic scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which Richard Dreyfuss sculpts a mound out of mashed potatoes. It is the model of a place he has never seen and still does not know even exists, but the general shape of this squat peak has been implanted in his consciousness (you’ll also recall that his models get more accurate and significantly larger as the film progresses).

Given the considerable number and range of digital artifacts that the assembler could find, retrieve or create, it would be surprising if the small subset of pieces that she eventually brings together and puts on exhibit were selected randomly. But they are not. Of the 50 photos taken on a weekend kayaking trip, 5 will uploaded. Not all causes are supported, not all quotes shared.

The discrete items of social media content that find their way onto timelines, feeds and blogs,—the reposted Soundcloud set, say, or the photo from yoga class and the morning’s giraffe pancakes—clearly serve an immediate communicative purpose. They provide our friends and acquaintances with information on what we are doing. At the same time, however, these bits of content make evidentiary statements about a desired identity we wish to present. Indeed, the exhibition space of the Facebook timeline was explicitly designed to showcase such statements. It was also conceived as a posting board for similar statements generated by activity in other social apps, provided that the assembler has allowed to post on her or his behalf (“Noah Mason is cooking quinoa pilaf on Foodily.”, “Liz Angelou is reading Hilary Mantel in Goodreads”). In the words of Facebook itself, the timeline “lets you express who you are through all the things you do.” [emphasis added]

As these collected or crafted digitalia are brought together into one exhibition space—and here we can use the term assembled—they eventually yield a distinct and characteristic image. That they do so is partly a function of the curatorial activity of the assembler. No discernible image would emerge if the uploaded items were entirely random or too wide-ranging. Instead, we have the structured chaos that the legendary Ausstellngsmacher and curator Harald Szeeman claimed was the essence of a good exhibition. In this instance the structure is provided by the image of the desired self that is being presented. Items of content must fit in some way with this image, which, since Facebook in particular is a denominated rather than an anonymous medium, must in turn be broadly credible in the eyes of the friends and associates called upon to endorse this image. And the more focused the material, the better.

In assembling these digitalia the assembler is half engineer, half bricoleur (to borrow a distinction from Levi-Strauss). Like the engineer, the assembler can deploy a specific task-appropriate set of tools to create the artifacts needed for the project at hand: a photo of the first runner beans in the garden, a mixtape of songs edited in mashup software, an uploaded summary of a 10k run recorded on a heart monitor. Like the bricoleur, however, he or she will also have a (recently culled) store of materials at hand that can be used for a task unrelated to their original purpose, even when they still bear by the history of their previous use. A video of Andy Warhol’s ‘screen test’ of Bob Dylan or a fundraising call for an anti-bullying organization can be appropriated and inserted into a new context where they acquire a new meaning: evidence of coolness or social concern. Naturally this need not mean that the assembler is not interested in the early Dylan or does not actively support anti-bullying initiatives. It does mean, however, that these shared or re-located items function in some instances as borrowed insignia with symbolic power. As it is uploaded into the assembler’s personal online exhibition space, the object becomes imprinted with the likeness of its appropriator.

These borrowed insignia bring to mind the contents of Barbara Bloom’s installation ”The Reign of Narcissism.” In this work, Bloom fashioned a hexagonal space in the form of a salon, which she furnished with period furniture, plaster casts, cameos and vitrines with chocolates, books and porcelain cups. The upholstery, the face of the chocolate, the teacup—each object in the room bore the artist’s image or some other mark of her identity such as her signature or astrological chart. The installation is an acerbic comment on the fetishism of collecting and, in the perfect symmetry with which the furnishings and statuary in the room have been placed, on a pointless obsession with order. But it also serves as a striking visual metaphor of how the self is presented through the conspicuous display of collected objects.


Featured image: Barbara Bloom, “The Reign of Narcissism”, 1988-89.  I first encountered Barbara Bloom’s work in James Putman’s remarkable study Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium, in which (among many other things) he discusses artists who have exhibited personal collections of objects as “museums”. (ed. Thames & Hudson).

This text was first published on the (now decommissioned) blog, Box in a Valise.

Street in Panormos, Tinos

Broken Vows

A gust of wind lifts up our bread basket and tosses it onto the pavement. Exei kairo, the locals say on days like this, when the dry northerly wind that whips down the Aegean Sea in late August keeps the fishing caiques moored at port and locals away from the sand-swept beaches. “There’s weather today,” as if the wind is the only meteorological phenomenon worth the name.  Ty told me that he and his cousins had a scale of their own when they were kids; the rungs of the scale were named for the heaviest object the wind would overturn—kareklatos for winds that overturn chairs, trapezatos when a table is upended. I wonder if there was one for a loaf of bread.

We’ve found a table at a modest taverna near the marina and wait for Ty, who’s gone looking for an ATM to withdraw the little cash he’s entitled to under the new regime of capital controls. In the meantime the boys are competing for my vote on what to do after dinner, a horse-and-carriage ride or a pedal-driven wagon for four. Neither seems like a good idea with the port traffic, swollen this evening by the last wave of pilgrims who are making their way to the pier for the ferry that will take them back to the city. Thousands come each year on the Feast of the Assumption to fulfill a vow, some making their way up the street to the Church of the Virgin Mary on their hands and knees. I’ve come instead to spend a few days with Ty and Alicia and their nine-year-old twins.

Ty arrives ten minutes later. “The first machine wasn’t working. Or maybe it ran out of cash. Let’s hope it’s a coincidence.”

“I still can’t get used to the idea that I can’t get to the money in my bank account. It feels like I’ve been locked out of my house,” I say.

“And someone else is living in it,” Ty says.

“Do I have a bank account?” Lukas asks.

“No. But you have stocks,” his mother says. “Your grandmother gave them to you and Harry when you were born.”

“What are stocks?” he asks.

“It means you own a small part of the company,” I jump in to explain. It’s a role I’m comfortable with, the teacher, a job I once had and loved, and the one I suspect I should be doing. The truth is, I enjoy talking with Lukas. He’s a bright, sensitive kid, with the enthusiast’s passion for discovery for the things that have piqued his curiosity—whether physics or Star Wars or the boats that ply the harbor—and barely concealed indifference for anything else.

I try to think whether there’s an analogy to raising capital in video games but find none and resort instead to the idea of a ferry company that wants to expand its fleet. I explain it as simply as I can but I’m not sure it makes much sense to him.

“How much do I have?”

His mother tells him. It’s a modest sum, about what his teacher at school might make in a month, but for a boy his age, I’ve discovered, money, like time, has very different orders of magnitude. Next month is the distant future and a thousand euros a fortune.

“Wow! Can I sell them back?”

“Well, you could sell your shares to someone else who wants a part of the company,” I say, “But why would you want to?”

He rattles off a list of Star War Lego kits and PlayStation games he’d use the money for.

“But it you sell it all, you won’t have any left over for later.”

“I don’t care.”

“Think about how you’ll feel when you grow up and want to come to the island with your girlfriend—“ I stop for a moment when I catch myself saying girlfriend and then add “or some friends from school, and you don’t have any money to rent a house to stay at.”

I scold myself for not saying “or boyfriend”, even though I haven’t talked to Ty and Alicia yet about how we’ll tell the kids I’m gay. There are much better ways for me to come out to them than slipping in a gay boyfriend in a story. Still, I felt inauthentic in a way I haven’t since freshman year in college, the last time, as best I can remember, that I switched pronouns in a story. It feels crappy, this visitation of an awkward, dissimulating former self, the teenage boy standing beside his date for the junior prom, concealing, with a smile as borrowed and ill-fitting as his rented brown-velvet tux, thoughts of the boy he wished could have been his date.

In retrospect it was a ridiculous example in the first place. The idea of renting a vacation house in the first place—with a girlfriend or a boyfriend—isn’t a relevant thought experiment for a nine-year-old. That said, romance is a far more familiar concept to Lukas than stocks and bonds. From Ratatouille to the video games he plays, straight romantic relationships are a standard part of the story. It’s the rare game where players will encounter same-sex romance, and none of the young reader’s detective novels I’ve given the boys for summer reading will have a gay character. Whatever the relevance of the vacation rental, it feels like a missed opportunity. How do we arrive at a society in which the gender of one’s romantic interests no longer matters when we erase the possibility of same-sex relationships from such a simple story? I promise myself to talk to Ty and Alicia about this when we all get back to the city.

The waiter arrives with our order, red mullet and a salad of rocket and grape tomatoes for the grown-ups, for Harry, spaghetti and for Lukas, youvarlakia, boiled balls of rice and ground beef in an egg-and-lemon sauce. “He likes hospital food,” Alicia once told me, and this is his favorite.

I would know this simply by the way he eats it, how he’ll devour the first half,  spoonful after spoonful in rapid succession, and then push the remaining roulettes into a mound on the side of the plate. This he’ll leave untouched until he scrapes up all the stray grains of rice and specks of ground beef left on the other side of the plate. It’s an intriguing interplay of immediate and delayed gratification that reminds me of the way I sometimes draw out the pleasure of a favorite meal, though I do so with salad and sides, neither of which tempt Lukas.

“How are the youvarlakia?” I ask him.

“They’re ok.”

“How so?” I ask. The teacher again. I glance at Harry and wonder if he’s bothered by the attention I’m giving his brother, if he feels I’m being disloyal to the bond we have as godfather and godson. I’ve learned, however, that Harry never says much when he’s eating.

“They’re too hard,” Lukas says. “I like it when they’re a little squishy. But the sauce is good.” He pauses for a moment and adds, “You can taste the lemon just enough. And it’s kind of soupy, which I like.” A sign the cook foreswore the cornstarch which other, less conscientious restaurants use to thicken the sauce.

“That’s a pretty smart review,” I say. “You’d make a good restaurant critic. Like Anton Ego in Ratatouille. And then, imagine you’d get paid for eating out! Though you’d probably have to start eating lots of different things. Not just ground beef.”

He frowns. “No, not like him,” he says, in a tone that suggests he finds the cartoon food critic creepy. I can understand his aversion; there is something ghoulish about the acerbic, limp-wristed Anton Ego—the long spindly fingers, the black rings around the eyes, the deathly pallor and hunched back. You cannot imagine this painfully thin man actually eating anything, much less relishing it.

The only alternative to Anton I can think of at the moment is Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, and I doubt if Lukas has seen the movie.  I make a mental note to look up ‘food critics in movies’ once I’m back home. Maybe I can rent him a DVD with a more sympathetic reviewer than Anton.

As I write this I remember Anton’s precedents in earlier films: the arrogant theatre critic Addison DeWitt in All about Eve and the brilliant but misanthropic columnist Waldo Lydecker in Laura. As a young teenager watching these movies on my parents’ cable TV, I found the characters equally creepy, though for a quite different reason. Despite their cinematic attachment to women, DeWitt and Lydecker were, I realized later, manifestations of the Hollywood trope of the effete homosexual, which for many years was one of the few ways in which gay men were depicted. Though intrigued by their sophistication and wit, I was struck by the loneliness of these sour, unhappy men, and knew that I never wanted to become one of them.

It was only years later, as I came out in the summer after graduating high school, could I envision a different and far happier future for myself, a life in which, as I was learning, the love for another man would be a source of joy and evidence of the divine. I’m not sure there was ever a single moment of decision in which I swore I would never betray my sexuality, much less made an oath to a deity, but since coming out I’ve lived my life as if there were one.

Until now and the story I tell Lukas about his return to the island. It feels as if I’ve come to this place of winds that upturn chairs and loaves of bread not having fulfilled a vow but having broken one. But the winds die down in September, and there is time enough for different stories to tell.


Although this text, like others on Breach of Close, can be read as memoir, I’ve changed the names of its characters. I hope Lukas, if he reads this years later, perhaps when he’s old enough to rent a summer house on his own, will forgive me this change in identity. I tried to find a name he would have liked. His favorite Star Wars character Grievous—Lukas even dressed up as the Jedi hunter for Halloween—was, for obvious reasons, out of the question and I opted instead for the protagonist of the original film trilogy. Luke Skywalker also happens to be a twin brother.

Featured image: Street in Panormos, Tinos. Author’s photograph.

Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

A Village Day

“Let’s get our hair cut,” Simon said. “There’s a barber shop in the East Village that’s doing some really cool stuff.” He made stuff sound like art or at least something I should know about.

I didn’t really want or thought I needed a haircut. My hair was like the button down oxfords and grey trousers that I wore to school, part of a uniform of ordinariness I didn’t have to think much about. But I would have followed Simon anywhere, and especially to the Village.

We’d only been there a few times. Our first forays in New York had been guided by the interests and habits of Simon’s sister, who studied fashion in the city and would regale her brother with stories of the places she ate and shopped, most of which were close to her school in midtown Manhattan. But like settlers in a new land, we had slowly begun extending our radius of exploration, spending the money we earned from our part-time jobs for which we had sacrificed track in the last half of senior year at art house cinemas and ethnic restaurants. Eventually we wound up in the Village.

I liked the neighborhood, with its gentle tree-lined streets of row houses and modest brownstones, its quirky shops and second-hand bookstores–and the young men I saw on its streets. So many of them, and unlike the suited businessmen with briefcases I saw uptown, who mostly walked alone and in a hurry to get somewhere, these men, some just a few years older than me, strolled the streets of the city together as if they were out for a walk in the park.

“How did you find out about the place?” I asked.

“It was in the Voice.”

The Village Voice. It was “our” newspaper. As far as I knew, we were the only ones in our class who read it. It was Simon of course who got me reading it, one day in the school cafeteria.

Shoving aside our plates of the congealed orange goop of our macaroni and cheese, he spread the paper out on the table and flipped to a page with a film review. “You’ve got to read this guy,” he said, “he’s so much better than that snob at the Times” he said. “Ginsburg used to write for it, can you imagine?” he said. Simon wasn’t old enough to have read anything the poet had published in the newspaper, but it was part of the lore of the city he seemed to be collecting, as a hiker might provisions for a long trek he was embarking on, preparation for the life in New York he dreamed of living. “The deli carries it. Maybe there’s some hope for this town after all.”

The next day I picked up a copy and read it cover to cover, and there in a small corner of the back pages I found an ad for a for a film. It featured a grainy black and white photo of two men: a bearded older guy in tight torn jeans and leather jacket, who stood slouching against a truck, and a younger man squatting at his side, close but not touching. They were looking straight ahead.

There were signs enough to suggest that this was a story of men who had sex with other men, and not just the phrase “All Male Cast” anchored at the bottom of the ad: the motorcycle jacket and ripped jeans, the story of trucker and hitchhiker that came to mind, the stance of the two men—what man willingly kneels by the side of the other? I wasn’t yet able to read them all but I didn’t need to. The desire in the men’s eyes, captured in the few tiny pixels of this sexually charged tableau, was unmistakable,

Later I would learn that we don’t read by decoding individual letters but by recognizing the shape of words, even when parts of the letters composing them are scratched off. In my case, the letters were not yet fully formed, but somehow I knew the word, as if it had always been there, waiting to be recognized.

Simon and I spent the morning rummaging through record shops and stopped for lunch at a place on 7th Avenue. The outdoor café was just a single row of small tables set within a thin, low-railed rectangle of sidewalk. From my seat I could thrust my arm out into the flow of pedestrians streaming by and touch the city, the way I used to dip my hand into the water as my father motored the rowboat out into the bay.

We ordered enchiladas and a beer. The waiter didn’t card us, as they had almost everywhere else in the city.

“This is what I want,” he said, slipping out from his bag one of the records he had bought and pointing to one of the musicians on the cover. The guy’s hair was messy, spiky at the top and shorter at the sides.

“Do you realize the dress code doesn’t say anything about how high your hair can be?” Simon said, obviously pleased with himself.  “It’ll grow out by graduation anyway if you don’t like it,” he said. He already assumed we’d do it. “What do you think?

A part of me wanted to say yes. It’d be a way of further cementing our friendship, but I sensed the cut Simon was contemplating wouldn’t suit me. It would have been like wearing the wig my classmate Desmond stuck his long hair under to get around the school’s dress code.

“I dunno.” Another part of me wanted to say “I kind of like the haircut the guys at the table in front of us have.”

They had come in after us. There were three of them, guys in their 20s, all dressed in tight jeans and t-shirts a size too small, two of them sporting a full mustache. The third, with traces of a beard, reminded me a little of the truck driver in the movie ad I had seen.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed their hair if Simon hadn’t suggested we get our hair cut that day.  The three men all had the same cropped hair as if they were members of some secret tribe or fraternity, shorter than what any of us at school wore, except Chuck, whose father was in the military and who’d applied to West Point.

I felt a little disloyal to Simon as I stole glances at them. Usually I couldn’t get enough of looking at Simon, though I could draw his broad proud forehead and high cheekbones from memory and could pick out the color of his brilliant blue-grey eyes from a flipbook at the paint store. I could mimic the way he sometimes tilted his head slightly up and to the right, as if scanning dozens of thoughts swirling in his mind. But I saw Simon every day.

Now that I noticed the guys’ hair I couldn’t stop looking at the heads of the young men who passed by as we dallied over lunch. I kept seeing the same helmet of close-cropped hair reappearing as one might a pale wildflower in a field that once discovered begins to reveal its ubiquity among the shoots of grass.

“What are you looking at?” Simon asked, turning around in his chair.

“Oh, nothing. Just trying to get the waiter’s attention. We need more salsa.”

The barber shop wasn’t an impressive place from outside, just a sign and staircase that led down to a basement shop. I had expected a glass-walled showroom or spacious white cube, like the gallery Simon and I had ventured into on our previous trip and where I had bought the outrageously expensive catalogue—a thin monograph of the Kirchener paintings we had seen—mostly as a souvenir of the day with Simon.

As he had warned, there was in fact a line to get in. It was only a short one, though, just a few people waiting on the stairs, but it lent the barbershop the air of a private club, the kind of place you had to be a member in order to be allowed in, an impression heightened by the other people in line, who looked as if they had already gotten their hair cut.

Simon went first, as I had insisted. I watched him as I waited, talking and laughing with the barber, already a young man of the city who betrayed no trace of the bus journey that had brought him here.

The barber was almost done with Simon by the time the next chair opened up. He was smiling broadly as the barber rubbed a little gel into his bright golden brown hair until it sprang up in a tousle of exclamation points.

“What’ll it be?” the barber asked me.

What will you be?” he could just as well have asked. I wouldn’t have known what to answer. How do you imagine a different life when you have so few clues of how this life might be lived, so few stories?  I could build my boyhood scenes of life in New York with the images I had scavenged from movies and books, however preposterous or anachronistic they eventually proved to be. But I had few pictures for this new and very different kind of life. In the days before a teenager with an Internet connection could browse through a list of gay celebrities and watch ads for Tylenol featuring gay fathers, before there was an Amazon with lists of LGBT youth fiction and town bookstores that stocked them, years before even Will and Grace, the public landscape of a future in which men who loved men lived was barren.

I was beginning, however, to amass a small store of images. I hadn’t necessarily sought them out—how would I have known where to look for them?—and most I had stumbled upon, like the stories of Cocteau and Baldwin or the movie ad. They were objets trouvés for a work in progress I only half suspected I was making but whose final features remained blurred.

At the time I had a shaggy mop of hair that brushed the collar of my shirt, just within the bounds of length prescribed by the school dress code. It was a thick mane that with the right cut and gel could have been almost any haircut I wanted. I just had to ask.

Instead I said, “A little off the top and sides”

As the first curls of hair fell onto my bibbed lap, I glanced at Simon, who looked as if he had just gotten out of bed, but my thoughts quickly wandered to the guy in the red t-shirt on 7th Avenue.

“You can take some more off.”

The barber combed up a segment of hair and clamped his fingers around the strands a couple of inches from the base. “This much?” the barber said.

“A bit more.”


I didn’t emerge quite as transformed as Simon had. I was just a teenager with a nondescript haircut that didn’t fit into any of the fashion niches at school, Simon’s new look included. Still, it was much shorter than what I had worn all through high school.

“You could have gotten that anywhere,” Simon said in a tone of muted disappointment.

“Maybe next time,” I said. Simon was wrong. It was definitely a New York haircut.


Featured image: “High Maintenance” by Devin Smith,  used under CC BY 2.0 .