Rocketing to Mars

by Joel Zartman, assisted slightly by the poet Yeats


This is no planet for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.


An aged man is but a paltry thing,
An automated suit, unless
bots wring their hands and ping, and louder ping
For every circuit of this high-tech dress,
Nor is there coding school but studying
Monuments of our own magnificence;
And therefore I have climbed aboard and come
To Mars’ main city at Olympus Mons.


O sages standing in the rocket’s fire
As in the heat shield of a wall,
Come from the rocket plume, perne in a gyre,
And be the coding-masters of my soul.
Consume my flesh away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of telemetry.


Once out of orbit I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as engineering makes
Of exoskeleton and print enamelling
To keep the complex circuitry awake;
Beyond the hydroponic bough to sing
In blue lit passages beneath Olympus Mons
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

The Hofbrauhaus Restaurant, Abbotstown, PA

Finding a German restaurant is always a tricky thing. The point is the food, isn’t it? Will it have good food or will it have substandard analogues? The quality of the sauerkraut, for example, is important.

The Hofbrauhaus in Abbotstown is a place of yesteryear. Dark wood paneling, steins and glasses and knick-knacks on running ledge, in a dim corner a taxidermized enormous bear, bucks heads, and plaques you will encounter. As you enter you see signs for a lounge which arouse curiosity. As you enter you also smell stale smoke, and you wonder why it is roaring fireplaces are not more standard in restaurants here. There was no roaring fireplace at the Hofbrauhaus.

When one discovers the lounge, one finds a dim dive bar. One is peered at by the figures hunched over the counter and in the hazy distance, one discovers ancient consoles in a corner, and one is returned to the atmosphere of indoor smoking. It is a small space with many eyes and much darkness. A kind of miniature Mirkwood.

I miss the smell of smoke in restaurants, and so the Hofbrauhaus takes me back. Yes, I wish more restaurants had that smell of smoke that for much of my life marked and designated them. At the Hofbrauhaus, besides a door that says employees only through which I found the lounge, there is a service counter connecting both spheres of service, covered by a sliding door of plexiglass. Through this alternative potations are introduced to the restaurant, and fresh air from the restaurant is exchanged for that available in the lounge. At one point the bar attendant peered through, lending a further feeling of incongruity to that which the sounds of German music always communicate.

It is now my favorite restaurant in the whole world.

Are the sausages good? Yes. Is the sauerkraut amazing? It is not quite amazing, but it is above your average. The bread is not soft or fresh, the crackers and cheese was probably a delicacy in the 1970s, but the hot potato salad works. The service is wonderfully informal enough for me, to the point of almost being attentively nonchalant.

If you can and have not gone, I say you have not lived.

Tales of Loida

Loida has bright, black eyes. She has a husky way of speech, dresses rather for activity than ostentation, and has a sense of humor. She likes to tell stories and she is always prepared. She looks after her mom and scolds her relatives when they take advantage of her.

She told me about Wilson. Wilson was a loose, rangy chap with a corrugated forehead that sloped back. He had thick features, a quick eye, and often a sudden, distant look. Very friendly, his teeth somewhat incomplete. His business was repackaging wholesale cereal and distributing it in the backways of the highlands. He’d fill his little truck and take the winding backways toward Villa de Leiva, Tunja, maybe Chiquinquira. All that windswept region of potato farming land. What roads he must have seen, what leaning out the window shouting, what soups he enjoyed, what yellow skin he must have gnawed of the boiled leg of a chicken, what stars and fogs, what dust and wind and rain.

He had a son of Anglo-Saxon designation: Wilfredo. Not a happy relationship, apparently. Nor was he happy in his business. His village clients didn’t pay regularly, and he kept supplying regularly, wracking up debts. Time wore on, he became infrequent in his attendance at church. He always sat upstairs and often left early, but usually after coffee. Loida’s mom asked if he was attending elsewhere; he denied it. Apparently, it was anxiety and stress. I talked enough to Wilson in my time to picture the frown, the look away, the rubbery, vague responses he would give.

Loida thinks the stress did him in. The compounded worry of enormous debt and his unhappy son. He checked himself into the hospital one evening, not feeling well. They gave him a bed where he died unattended of a heart attack in the early hours of the morning.

His faith was stretched in the circumstances. I hope it didn’t break, and that he fell asleep in Jesus, in hope of the resurrection of the dead. Rest in peace, Wilson my friend.

* * *

The federal police in Colombia wear green uniforms. The standard uniforms are a kind of olive drab, but the outer jackets and security vests are a bright, avocado green. So they call them the avocados. “Los Aguacates” I said, as Loida squeezed the little car into the open lane past a section of the road they had commandeered for checking people. I had only learned that the night before.

Loida commented that they had pulled her over in the truck recently, asked for her ID and so on, and then asked her to open up the back. “No sir,” she told them. “I’m not opening this truck for you. I know how you are! I know you’re just going to put something in there and then further up the way I’ll get stopped by some other police that will find it. I’m sorry, but I’m not opening anything up (Que pena, pero yo no les abro nada—she actually said). You set up a proper and legitimate post and I’d do it. But you’re not putting that over on me.”

And she stood up to them, and there was nothing they could do.

“You have to know what the procedure,” she told me. “They can’t be doing it without a proper post like we saw back there. One has to know how they can do it and the things they do. You have to be careful.”

Loida is fantastic. When one knows one’s way around in Colombia, one knows a considerable thing or two. Loida knows all those things. Every single one.

We sat across from her and her mom at the coffee shop, on the third floor of the Niza Boulevar. They had milkshakes that came with long spoons. They were the kind of spoons with nearly useless narrow, shallow bowls. They spooned their milkshakes slowly down, while we heard of life in Neiva down in Huila, where the heat is tremendous, and of Wilson, and several other affairs.

Things I Came Away with

I came away with all four volumes of Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, which is considerable to come away with from anything for free. It was thanks to my brother, who exploited the fact that at Ebenezer RC, where he is the minister, a spare set was on hand. I am eternally in his debt.

I came away with another mountain experience. We went up to see the sequoias. Those massive and fibrous trees like to grow up high to begin with. Up there the pines have elaborate an bright green growths of lichen to windward. It was cool, it was fragrant with cedars and pines, the trees were preponderant, the mountains waited, all was well. It is giant country up there, and the only regret is coming away from it at all.

From the plane I watched the sun-touched tips of the mountains, then the mesas far below. I saw the wrinkled land, and the curving ridges. Colorado had a lot of high country under snow. I saw the straight lines of L.A., the close-set houses, the massive freeways and the sea. I do not understand why people close their windows on a plane. Had a guy try to close mine, stared at him, responded that I did mind when he asked and got an apology from him. I peer out of the plane constantly. I want to see.

I came away with the curious fact that the ARBCA RBs are all literal 6 day creationists. I also, come to think of it, came away with the same fact about the RCUS. I personally do not get what it matters. It is not something people get worked up about in the OPC. I can believe God made the world in six seconds, six minutes, six days, or something else if it proves a good and necessary interpretation. I don’t know why exactly it matters to people. I shall have to inquire and find out.

I interpret those portions of Genesis literally because it obviously is setting up a pattern for the week, and a natural law basis for the one-in-seven day of rest. Something I came away with was a distinction I was not formerly aware of: the distinction between natural and positive law. So the command to observe one day in seven can be derived from natural law: always universally applicable. But the day on which it is actually done is a matter of positive law. This distinction, apparently, was really useful to particular Baptists when debating Presbyterians about Scripture’s commands regarding baptism. Something to investigate.

I was in a house in La Mirada that made me think of the long paperback days of youth. In that distant epoch I read fantasy and science fiction, a good portion of which was written by Californians. Maybe it was the fact that the house was filled with old things, many of them books. There was a record player and a boom box, a 13 inch TV and almost nothing defiling the place that was recent. I think it was also the eucalyptus, the cypress, the slant of the sunlight, the mountains in the blue distance, the endless skies. California is a lot like Mexico City at that point, somehow. Has a rainy season, has predictable weather, is mild and mildly tropical, and you can get tacos on every corner.

I came away with a sense again of the remoteness and otherness of California. It is big, it is wide, it has huge natural features, it is sprawled, it has endless cities and endless orchards and endless deserts and unending mountains, it is western and it is magical. Of course, every place has its charms, as long as you don’t look for the charms of other places there. I was still glad to come away and get back to Philadelphia in the woods, of limited horizons and tangled roads, of my Ford Focus and not some egregious SUV, of long lawns and narrow streets instead of wide streets and short lawns.

Travel Food

Philadelphia airport at 4:30AM last Thursday had twenty people in line waiting for McDonald’s to open. There were places open without lines. And yet there are airports in which there is no McDonald’s. I was in SFO, a pretty upscale airport from the look of it. All kinds of effete, organic, exotic and unappealing places and only one recognizable fast food place: Burger King. Who had the line? Which place had poles and ropes to manage the line? Not the fad-food places. Nor was there a Starbucks in the whole stuck-up place.

You know what I noticed about California? It is no wonder they seem to be the place from which all this organic, crazy, diet-food comes from. They have more hamburger joints than any other place on the planet. All the hamburger fast-food chains are there, and they have as many little and local as well. It is a fast-food paradise. They do hamburgers like we do pizza and cheesesteaks in Philadelphia. No wonder they start getting concerned about their diet.

They also have good Mexican food out there. I had tacos in rural California, breakfast burritos almost every day, and good and highly authentic street tacos at the SCRBPC. I think tacos are balanced. Tacos are the healthiest most robust, nourishing food you can get. The ones I had with cabbage down below the sequoias were the best; and balanced. Good sauce out there too, and they know how to heat up the tortillas.

On Consideration

I watched a video of a conference in Colombia that took place a few weeks back. I had been joking with a friend about it, knew several of the lay people who attended, and heard from one who is a deacon a good report. He said his favorite was one on the history of the translation of Scripture that is most common in Spanish. He said he was able to understand better what was being said thanks to these Church History talks I get up to with another pastor down there.

Then I heard about it from the guy whom I instructed for a while in Greek. He was not so sanguine about this session and had some questions. It turns out that the Trinitarian Bible Societies, which have headquarters in England, are Reformed, and so they are eager to participate in Reformed efforts. They somehow got in at the last minute and sent a guy with a power point down to participate in the Reformed version of Big Eva in Colombia. People loved it; thought it was great. It is all the rage nowadays: follow the TGC.

Of course, Colombians will say good things about anything. What we need brother, they have been known to exclaim in confidence and sincerity, is exactly what you just did here. What you just came and gave us made all the other conferences seem like a devotional; you totally put them in the shade. Colombians are encouragers, they love to be loved, they want you to fall in love with them, to think them grateful and eager. If you pour money in, they’ll cheer. It is part of how they are, and part of what they do. It is part of the warmth, and not altogether bad. It also requires a corresponding absence of judgment which fortuitously is also there in quantities.

The video was characterized by made up history. There was a made up story about how the early churches kept their originals of the books of the New Testament and about how when a copy was made, travelers were sent to the location of the original to compare and always preserve an accurate copy. It was intimated that Christians have always been scrupulously careful about the NT text. The other made up story came by way of a tissue of insinuations. It was the notion that any manuscript not agreeing with the Textus Receptus is associated with Alexandria, where diligent heretics modified the text to fit their views. There were so many things wrong with this part it was almost ingenious: there was implied Biblicism, there was conflation, there were selective details, etc.

The doctrine was: God preserves his word, of course. Translations that contain less than the TR can therefore not be said to contain all of God’s word. (It is interesting that the next conference has as its theme Mark 16:15. Is there a pattern emerging here?)

Then came the proof: verses where doctrine is minimized. Apparently, the Trinitarian Bible Societies, which claim to value the 17th century protestant confessions, have a Biblicist view not only of how heretics derive doctrine from Scripture, but how orthodox doctrines are derived as well. Noting how this guy does history, it comes as no surprise. It was all organized to prey on ignorance, of course; at least, one is hard pressed not to believe it is done without intent. What sort of intent? I wonder. And, if ignorance and chance come together this coherently, do I need to start believing in evolution?

Everybody is eager to start seminaries in Colombia nowadays. People down there are, people with money here are, and people with varying skills volunteer. As long as you need a translator to give the class or have some notoriety even if you are crippled by Spanish fluency, and as long as you do not cost them anything, you are qualified to teach, it seems. And who are the gatekeepers on all this? The organizers. Those who do the work of brokering the arrangements between the supply side and the demand side, and who answer to the supply, not the demand.

Bernard of Clairvaux lived a life between action and contemplation. He called it consideration. Consideration is what is needed.

NYC: a Place for Learning

I learn how life is. You see all these people standing before the doors, waiting to get into the boat, their heads down and their thumb constantly moving. Wires go into their ears; they talk to someone elsewhere, turning away from the physical presence that might disturb their attention. And over this scene stand the prophetic words of Heidegger: Technology alienates from being. I have seen a woman walking down the street with a phone in each hand, absorbed in each alternately, dimly aware of the surrounding world.

They use sunglasses as masks there, eye contact not being encouraged. Not that they’re not bold or curious. They are. I have looked up from my table at a veranda and almost always it is to see someone drop his gaze. You look at New Yorkers directly and they’ll automatically drop their gaze. They are curious about other people, but surreptitiously so. There are a lot of weirdos on the street, and these are looking for an opening. There are predators, and you want to make no contact with them at all, or seem like one. Life is so public in that place, so much the life of crowds that the fashion of the glasses is a fashion of armor too.

Because it is a hard life, that of the City. One of the things I learn is how forward you are expected to be. You make your way and you do not expect it to come to you. There is, of course, politeness and good service. But you must be forward: blessed are those who hustle and do what it takes. It is engaged, knowing, and unreceptive, which is to say: acquisitive. I went up and down Madison Ave looking to see a Dunkin Donuts, ubiquitous elsewhere. North of 38th one is not to be found: south there are two. North is the world of luxury goods, of shops in which security guards wearing nothing ill-tailored stare out, deftly avoiding your gaze, alert to the coming of one wearing the badges of inclusion. Affluence is paraded because it means success. Hard surfaces cover the vulnerabilities of the face for those who can afford to keep to themselves.

Two things I’ve learned about fashion. One is that a man can still look well with a mustache not entirely enormous, which I would not have formerly believed. Not an odd or an elaborate mustache, but something natural and ordered, corresponding to the face. Not many in our day will, but this guy understood all the factors and pulled it off. I have yet to wrap my head around how the thing comes to be. I did manage to wrap my head, thanks to New York, around another phenomenon: that is the man in sandals. The sandal is such a thing as requires a certain proportion around the naked foot and corresponding leg. It is more fitting for a woman because it can be more delicate, and so maintain proportion. There is a corresponding grace to the whole effect, which is of a different nature in the male. In men’s sandals, they must be less delicate, more substantial; but because they are, they usually overwhelm the foot, characterizing it not by grace but mere clumsiness. There is only a certain minimum of clunk available to the male sandal before it becomes effeminate, like a flip-flop. This all changes if you are a sufficiently large man. The proportions of a sufficient but not egregious sandal being dwarfed by a great foot clear up the problem. And that is what I saw, and wondered at, not having before believed such a thing at all could be.

All this is the world, but it is the world made obvious. I walk through the grim underworld of downtown Philadelphia, where the subways rattle and the cold light of ancient fluorescent tubes shows unrelieved corridors of wasted space. Nobody makes a bid for it. In the farthest habitable desolation, before the unvarying corridors begin, you have a Taco Bell. There is nothing of ambition in a Taco Bell since such a place contains nothing human kind associates with desire. The space ns Manhattan is at a premium in a way Philadelphia cannot rival, not being on an island. So it is concentrated, and humankind is concentrated, and for some purposes more observable in the avidity which this brings out.

Avidity, and other humanizing things. They don’t do ice as much now in New York, and that I celebrate. They give you water in glass bottles nowadays, not chilled either, and plain glass cups. None of it with ice, though this has not affected the potation of other chilled beverages. Perhaps it is in an effort to save water. After you are done they dump the remainder out and wash the whole apparatus, of course.

New York, the City

Hamilton, NJ, the Transit Hub

There is a disturbance, then a roar. The Amtrak tube lashes through, shaking the foundations. You glimpse it in a blur. It diminishes, it is gone, and the birdsong is loud in the aftermath. The birds have made their nests around the platforms, indifferent to the power and the glory of the trains.

No attendants on duty. You buy your ticket from a touchscreen and you read the signs. The slower NJ Transit trains use the two outer tracks, the Amtrak goes on the inner two. Concrete sleepers covered in grey rocks under the wires stretch away to both horizons, and that is all.

The NJ Transit

Not newer models, the trains. Mass transit is about efficiency of access and unencumbered transportation: this is what they do, in measurable, great quantity. Trains have their own way: they glide and have their sounds: the rush, the clack of slowing down, the lonely whistle, the hum. Three seats on one side, two on the other on the one-tier trains. Old plastic, scratched windows, the conductor only occasionally friendly and all business. The intercom squawks semi-intelligibly.

It feels like a step back in time, except that everybody is using small screens. No newspapers, no magazines, no books, just little screens and wires into the head.

New Jersey flashes by between stations. Princeton Junction, New Brunswick (Rutgers), and then the industrial wasteland and marshes. New Jersey, as you approach New York, seems like a place where they tried but failed to extend the city. Eventually you descend into darkness.

Pennsylvania Station

The darkness that leads out of New Jersey brings one to the dim underworld of New York. Pennsylvania Station is a functional place, and down on the platforms a dreary location indeed. The dead trudge up the stairs into the waiting areas of that underground complex. They spread out toward the various exits and join the living on New York’s teeming sidewalks. I Tiresias have walked among them. I have seen the wires coming from their ears, connecting them to their batteries, carrying them through the lower regions.

In the evening ticket holders wait for a track to be announced, and then rush down as soon as they can to get each man his seat down in that dim underworld, in the humming train that will bear them back to New Jersey and Pennsylvania.


There was pizza. $1 for a cheese slice, and $3 for the other options. Warm pizza of the morning. The attendants speak to the customer in the customary English, and then shout at each other in Spanish. Efficiency is the rule in New York City. Don’t dawdle, don’t hang back, don’t be dumb. Know thy mind, if indeed thou hast one, thou idiot. The beckoning small pizza places angle into the structure of the city, wedged away in slices.

The Frick

A low place where tall structures are in demand, a breach in the ramparts surrounding Central Park, the Frick. A lawn even, and more unusually, a lawnmower. Inside: the bag inspection, the coat check, the inefficient dispatch of tickets, the guard who lectures and indicates, and after all the preliminaries the collection. It is a house of treasures: Vermeer, Gainsborough, Reynolds, van Dyck, Corot, Holbein (More and Cromwell), and two magnificent enormous Turners. The dead creep through it, listening to handheld devices, sitting often, dressed variously but mostly well, upscale. Good lighting on the art and a dimmer building, the sense of a house: dining room, hall, library, gallery, oval room, etc. The Frick has nothing contemporary, for it was Frick’s own collection made one hundred years ago or so. I Tiresias, blind seer of Athens, looked on what had been.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A tourist destination. Crowded stairs, slow entrance, bag inspection, statistical registration I Tiresias did avoid, unnoticed as at Thebes below the wall. Throngs of the dead like autumn leaves there. These dissipate. The dead congregate in the impressionist galleries, but not in the remoter 17th Century galleries. A vast place and somewhat seedy for seeing so much volume, so many dead. No meager collection, but functional galleries, and some living moments in galleries where the statues are about to come to life, impatient with the dead. The worn parquet, the foot-high ropes, the tramp of feet and murmur, the indescribable pastel paint on the walls is mostly all. The dead blow though, watched by the drowsy guards. The fierce statues disdain to exhibit life, waiting for the dead to pass. I Tiresias stared into those souls, stared into the round eyes of quintuped Assyrian cherubim. What a race, the Assyrian: beards and wings and bunched calf muscles.

I went as the swallow goes, to get a sense of it. If one is going to see the Met and absorb anything at all, one has to stay in the city, one has to arrive early and late, one has to have copious time if one is not to see it as the dead do. The dead file past the statues, up the staircases and down. I went among them, I Tiresias, and when I had finished drifting along with them I emerged, not even a statistic for the quantitative.

Dulce Vida

Lexington Ave. Crammed against a panel of glass facing the sidewalk. Ajiaco, maracuya, aguepanela, sancocho. Sweet corn—so out of place—and auyama. Good green sauce, authentically Mexican in a Colombian restaurant. The usual incongruity. A Brazilian waiter, solicitous, trilingual. Quick service, Colombianly awkward.

New York Public Library

Of its many locations, I went to the classical building that hove into view a few blocks west of Park Ave. The steps were thronged for a medieval event: an outdoor performance drawing great applause. The living congregated there, and the dead were on the fringes, hoping to understand. A line led in, a bag inspection, a splendid building, some celebrants. Steep stairs, a well-kept place. The dead milled in it, sat pointlessly at the top, engaged the desperate memorial of photography with their little screens, gesturing on their surfaces. I Tiresias watched their wish to even wish anything at all dismayed. Backstairways lead to vast hallways, past the reliquaries and into the world of life again.

Juan Valdez Coffee

The stark modern interior, of a dark variety. The attendant who did not speak audibly. The latte they call café con leche. The old lady sneaking in to use the counter without buying anything. The hulking transvestite. The attendant coming to stare at the impertinent old lady. The young woman going through her email on a mackintosh computer. The Slavic conversation of some emotion. The light roast from Huila in the red packaging. The leg of Tiresias fell asleep.

Grand Central Station

They go with purpose under that vast canopy, those wells of light, that spacious crossing of the paths of all the world. Ramps lead to the bowels of the city. Wrought and industrial iron, marble, the everlasting sound of throngs that move with purpose.

Bubble Tea

Is it not one of the consolations of the age? A limited menu, three Asian girls, the wait, the crowded premises, the odd machinery. Good strong black tea, the creamy milk, the tapioca bubbles, the ingenious large straw and the sealed package. The chewy slugs are soft and swift, and the moment passes. There are few urban consolations like straightforward bubble tea.

150, and the Sidewalks

From 30th north to 86th, south to 10th and back up to 30th = 140 blocks. From as far west as Columbus Circle to Lexington Ave in the east, another 10 in zigs and zags. With musea and other distractions, a good days of walking = 150 blocks at least. I Tiresias have seen the city, and there is enough of it. The surge across the streets with all the living intermingling and so many different embodied souls to see can be endlessly repeated. I have seen Jewish gentlemen in a comfortable interiors that advertise kosher chicken soup. I have been among the smoking hot-dog stands with kebabs and emanating middle-eastern music. I have noticed glasses and cloth napkins, plain and elegant booths, counters, steaming trays of food, pretzels and pizza, coffee, donuts and animated conversations. The buildings rise, rank upon rank, various, splendid, curious, dull, and renewed as the city renews itself, that strong, great city. New York City Ferrari, art supplies, instruments of music, oysters for $1, theaters, billboards and vast churches.

And I know that what New York City doth not have, doth not matter.


I’ve noticed that people from around here don’t talk about going to see Delaware. Many places are mentioned, but Delaware is not. So we went to see Delaware. It isn’t far and nobody ever talks about going to check out Delaware.

If you pay attention to your junk mail you may have noticed how many financial things come from Wilmington, DE. Downtown Wilmington is just one large bank building after the other: Chase, PNC, Citizens, Bank of the Pumpkin, etc. That is what they do. It is a hilly place, located between the Brandywine and the Christina Rivers, and has river walks along both that are pleasant. The Brandywine is a cheerful stream in a gorge. The Christina is tidal, with seafowl and rusting railroads.

It looks like Baltimore often, with small rowhouses on straight streets. We have rowhouses in Philadelphia of all kinds, but when they’re on straight streets they tend to be impressive, if they’re on narrow streets they are quaint, and if they’re on windy streets they are jumbly. Wilmington has nice little rowhouses and then the hood rowhouses, from what I can tell. The hood is downhill from downtown—one of the hoods at least. I don’t mind driving through the hood since it reminds me of the third world, so it is familiar, and I have an old car, so I fit in. Beside rowhouses they do pizza and fried chicken in Wilmington, and I saw three yellow and green Jamaican restaurants.

We walked: that’s what we do. It’s a good place for walking and it was a good day. We walked for an hour and a half before lunch and an hour and a half after lunch. Walking in a place you’ve never been to before is my idea of traveling, as long as the place has things to notice you are not sorry to be noticing. I even walk in suburban settings, but prefer the city. In Wilmington we got all city. It was great. For such a small place, it was very, very great.

They do seafood in Wilmington. I guess the closer you get to the coast the more they start using seafood. That’s the rule. We did not go with the seafood, however. We went with the $3 hamburgers and $3 fries at one of these modern day food courts not consisting of restaurant chains and without an attached mall called a market: such as the North Market in Columbus or the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. This one was considerably smaller than either, but had more available seating. The pizza place and the steak shop were separate, which you’d never see in Philadelphia. They had a generic burrito place too, which I’ve never seen before. It was very unusual for me. I think they’re really trying to push that waterfront walk, for health and restaurants.

Returning to the hamburgers, they had a guy dressed as a chef doing most of the honors and they were clearly not used to handling volume. (Look, I know about volume; I worked at MacDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s—these places do volume; these guys did not know how to handle volume, believe me.) But they knew the importance of the pickle, and that says a lot. These were no thin-sliced rounds, but over a quarter of an inch thick. Very impressive. Impractical on a hamburger, but still, the principle of the thing is right. You take it out, you eat it, it is good. Very good. It was the best pickle I’ve had since I don’t know when. Most restaurants neglect the importance of the pickle, but this nameless place somewhere near the train station in Wilmington does not neglect it. It was a fine pickle. It did not taste like the things you get in a jar at the grocery store. It did not taste like the thing that comes on your plate beside your fries at most restaurants. It tasted like neither of these standard flavors of pickle you get in the USA always and everywhere. It tasted like a really good pickle, and it was a testimony to the enduring importance of the pickle. Proper pickles, even if only a slice of one, are key. Everything else followed from that, so it is a good place.

Tomorrow we are probably going to try NYC, having done Wilmington. I hope those guys out there have places where you can get a good pickle. The importance of the pickle has come home to me like never before, and all because I went to Wilmington Delaware. I am very glad I went. I thought it was a great place. Very.

Returning First Class

For some reason United shunted us into first class for the return trip. It was the complete reverse of the trip out, once we got on the plane. Our checked bag even was the first one to come out of the baggage claim at O’Hare (which went swiftly indeed for O’Hare). Customs these days is not badly run, and one feels that with all the dull-witted travelers the TSA has to handle, they don’t really do too badly either.

In first class–never done it before myself–of course you have that vital quantity: space. The seats are wider, the space before is better, and after so many flights in the constricted spaces usually provided, one almost feels there is too much, that first class is an excess. It took some getting used to, some dispelling of the air of unreality about it all after the flight down. With airlines nowadays one is happy if things go without unanticipated calamities, but one does not expect to have improvements. One does find one can adapt, however, to the rare eucatastrophe.

Of course there’s the drink before take off, which is all vanity and ostentation to make one feel what class one has attained or purchased. Then the thing gets rather interesting: first the hot cloth offered with tongs, then the heated cashews; the drinks come in real glasses, and the meal on crockery liberally distributed over a far wider tray than the crowded fuselage of the plane behind one could hope to accomodate. It is airplane food but in slightly larger quantities, perhaps more thoroughly heated, and in superior circumstances. And of course the solicitous flight attendant helps. It made flight more than tolerable, and showed one what travel might be if one is willing to pay, or in our case, if one is lucky.

It is a great way to come home, first class.

They even have a special magazine, with articles not well -written but written about exclusive and capricious things with a kind of art. Advertisements for handmade shoes from Italy, etc. And you get a glimpse of what life can be on this planet, for some. After you have flown first class, and wondered at the space, and reflected on how it must be for the masses behind you, and remembered the crowded conditions you are all too familiar with you begin to think: it is going to be difficult to spend two, three or four hours in those conditions again the next time? You get off–not as stunned by the experience–and see the stunned, weary expressions of those your distant companions when they catch up with you at the baggage claim and you begin to understand.

There is a pull, and allure, and it is not altogether innocent. There is an awful lot of money sloshing around this world, and you get glimpses of it and what life on this planet can be, if you pursue it, if you can. We stayed in a very solicitous hotel, better than most of the places we manage to do, though we certainly run the gamut on the lower half of things; and like all things of its kind, there were realms up beyond ours even in that hotel. But in an A320 the range is limited, the slash between first and the rest is striking, and it makes you think.

Going to Mexico City on United

Port Columbus seemed busier than usual. It isn’t a big terminal, but even then it has been pretty drowsy most times I’ve been through it. Not Monday. Besides endless repairs which have been ongoing for the last three years, that I can tell, the gates were crowded. Ours was crowded because United had an inoperative plane. Did it have a flat tire? Were the engine transuper magnifolators distorting the fuel intake? Nope, the speaker in the rear of the plane that served the flight attendants was hosed. They were trying to fix it, but could not apparently get off the ground without having that in order.

And the woman giving updates was not helping. “So . . . the latest is that they still haven’t fixed it. They were told by Houston to switch the speakers from the front to the back and so . . . they’re going to see if that works.” Her tone of voice was, it seems to me, the result of deciding that the best approach would be to take the baffled customer’s point of view and provide color commentary on her employer’s fiasco as an outsider; as if to say: we don’t know, it is ridiculous, some guys are walking around in there, honestly in my whole entire life I’ve never had to deal with something like this before. Which doesn’t help (nor the inadvertent associations of the coincidence that a formerly Continental jet should have headquarters in Houston). Hours–hours!–of delays because of a speaker.

I remember once in an airport a European family of four missed their big flight, being left stranded in Atlanta. The way the employee at the gate dealt with it was by affecting anger: why didn’t you listen to the announcements, why did you walk away from the gate for a short while, what kind of irresponsible people are you about the irregularities of travel. Very brusque, upset–which is irrational, and she made them cry. I know people employed to deal with the actual matter of any business have a hard time of it, but it doesn’t make it easier to make it harder on the customer. Maybe she was having one of those days where you just long for a good fight.

But our plane was functional. It was uncomfortable, especially for the enormous dude sitting beside me, but functional. We departed, we flew, we were to our relief released from the plane. Many were a bit stressed about their connections in Houston, and we ourselves almost went to the wrong gate, but arrived before boarding, almost the last.

Then we found out our plane to Mexico was not functional. No description was given of the problem, but the airplane was inoperable. The woman doing the announcement was Latin American, and she dealt with the problem professionally, assuring us that since it was a hub no doubt a replacement would be soon found, although one was not yet. I appreciated her making up extra reassuring things. It did tell me that they were rather scattered about contingencies at United/Continental. You’re at a hub and you can’t figure out right away whether or not you can replace one airplane or another? Do they run their fleets of barely functional ancient craft at the stretching point routinely? Was it that the speakers required had not been manufactured since 1982 and they’d used up the last dozen of them that day, shooting the whole stock of them to Columbus via FedEx? I watched them poking around with flashlights in the cockpit for the better part of an hour.

They played up the safety aspect, which was annoying. “We don’t want to send you in an unsafe plane because we care about you.” Rubbish. If you cared, you’d have backup safe planes or at least ones for which spare parts didn’t have to be fetched from a junkyard and not a string of malfunctioning aircraft all over the country grounded because you can’t in this age of electronics figure out how to get a working speaker in a plane in 15 minutes. In the end they figured out another plane an hour later, rerouted us to the most distant gate (buying time, I guess), had most of the people in line, and then figured out the plane was not in fact ready to fly over the mountains of Mexico with any but the clearest weather, which was not in the forecast.

Then some fifteen minutes later they figured out that the little plane indeed could.

“Again, we apologize, but it is your safety that is foremost with us at United.” Do you know what happened in the rattle of landing? One of the compartments opened from which the emergency supplies of oxygen are supposed to come in the event of a loss of pressure. It swung open and stayed open, and nothing else came out. It made me wonder if in the event of an emergency the systems are as reliable as the routine safety patter they go through before take off.

Because the employees were tired of being there late, because the people were in no mood to be hassled with boarding neatly, because the crew were scrambling to get the mothballed A319 operational, we ourselves didn’t board till everybody had pressed ahead, and so when we found our seats in the back our carry-on of course did not fit. I’ve seen it happen where the crew find a place, take small bags out and hand them to people who don’t want to obstruct their leg space. But we were summarily told to check ours, plus, we had to walk it up to the front of the aircraft. I was so mad: no help, no understanding, no let us take care of that for you, no apology–as if we had somehow offended by having carry-on baggage on top of everything they had had to go through in that day. What about, “I’m sorry, you’re gonna have to check that, do you mind taking it up to the front when the way is clear?” Then they got on the PA and said we should hurry because we were holding up the plane. I understand the moment, but not a shining United experience.

It was not till later I realized I’d stowed my passport in the front pocket of my carry-on. When they were passing out customs forms I explained, and the stewardess told me she could not help me because her responsibilities end at the door of the plane. She was polite and empathetic, but rather helpless. The problem is you have to go through customs before you get your baggage.

Fortunately, the ground crew United employs in Mexico City has a bit more of a handle on things than the American end of the operation. The woman told me to just get in line for customs and they’d get the bag to me by the time I needed it. I got to the official and was talking to her about it. She told me that because I’m not a Mexican I can’t be in this country undocumented. And she would have appreciated it, I think, had I joked about how we have 11 million undocumented Mexicans in my country, but I did not think of it till a few minutes later. I guess it had been something of a wearing trip.

And then the bag came, and I was saved.

What a good thing for United they have Mexicans working for them!

Reading and Reading Borges

I took two things to read: Le Morte D’Arthur and Borges’s poetry. Morte D’Arthur had been a few years since the first read through, and it is a lot brighter on the second time. One spends a lot of the first time through trying to figure out what the main plot is, and the second enjoying the errantry. It is not a book with a straight through kind of approach. It is about the glory of chivalry, and how adventures must be met, and how Sir Arthur’s was the most worshipfullest court never ne man did know. I take it a book at a time, and that is just right. The thing unfolds gradually and entirely, quaint and authentic, splendid. There is also the pleasure now of a better consciousness of the matter of Logres from Charles Williams. It was no mistake to stick with Mallory.

Nor was it a mistake to bring Borges. I’ve been at Borges since before Colombia. One of my early problems with Borges was my limited Spanish. I had a slender volume of his poetry and I did not have a dictionary always on hand. I’d ask Colombians about words and received vague replies. And Borges has favorite words that have no precise translation always in English. The verb urdir for example, and the noun arrabal; he uses them all the time, and they have a range of legitimate English translations. I have never heard anybody use them in common speech. But I have persevered, and have the edition with opposing English translations that are sometimes not entirely unreliable, and my Spanish after Colombia is tremendously upgraded, and upgrading.

I’ve spoken Spanish all my life, but it isn’t my mother tongue, and it lapsed into some serious rust during the half of my life lived in the USA. I still have to think carefully sometimes when I begin to speak, and that’s not how persons naturally speak. It is difficult to speak when you’re thinking about how you have to say things, but good discipline for the mind. Anyway, the quality of Borges’s Spanish is inferior to none. He was an absolute master of the music of the sound and syntax of the language. I think I have his measure now, though, and I think so because when I played a recording of him reading his poetry aloud, I had his cadence and intonation down from reading his poetry. Not his pronunciation, of course, which I do not aspire to, but the cadence with which he delivered his lines.

He was quite the person. What kind of person? “Here displayed also are my habits: Buenos Aires, the cult of ancestors, the study of the German [Teutonic languages? Germanistica] language, the contradiction between time that passes and the identity which endures, my astonishment that time, our substance, can be shared.” And, “The writer’s is a curious lot. He starts being baroque, vaingloriously baroque, and at the end of many long years he can, if the stars are favorable, achieve not simplicity, which is nothing, but rather a modest and secret complexity.” His own words, my translation; it is hard to get more characteristic of him than that. If I were to dream in the Borgesian way, I’d tell a story of a Christian who never told anybody he was one, never went to church or otherwise indicated he was, all the while being in secret the most devout and fervent Christian possible. That would be a Borges kind of story, and if anybody were to do such a thing it would be Borges. Borges, you know, never claimed to be a Christian.

He was that great paradox: a modest Argentine. There is true humility in his poetry, and I think it was due to his ability to love great things, to realize his insignificance before time and chance and the splendor beyond him of great matters. He was a great lover of literature, especially English, to the degree that he loved the sounds and wrote more than once about Anglo-Saxon, which he knew. He even attempted, failing however, to reproduce in Spanish the music of English and also German poetry, he says. Who even tries that? How many native English readers even hear it? He was interested in the metaphysics of existence, time and eternity, and fascinated with the symbols and the symbolic systems which mediate to us the permanent things. I think his best poem–though he himself did not apparently agree with me–is ‘Arte Poetica’, which made me cry on the Metro. And his statement about a modest and secret complexity above is not only quintessential, but penetrating. He was humorously penetrating, easy about making useful insights and statements without belaboring things. A lover of glory and irony; a seeker of that nameless thing beyond that which is named; a worthy man.
* * *
It is interesting to read Borges in this city which is such a conglomerate of passing time. No doubt other older cities in Europe would serve better, but I am served well enough in one that speaks the language of the music of which Borges knew. He knew himself to be not a poet of English, though our language was his from the first. His art was done in Spanish, and the Spanish language is absolutely his. And not only the time cluttered City of Mexico, but the Metro itself, with the trains that are one continuous quarter of a mile corridor of still human beings rushed through the darkness, the mobs entering and exiting the exact same series of doors, the passing of unrequited time in unperceived advancing space, the succession of lights in the tunnel dimming and flaring and dimming again, the unending effort of the three-story-long escalators which circle dumbly carrying people out of the bowels of the earth from 5AM till midnight, all seem made for Borges.

And this: there was an abandoned building, falling into decay, the elaborate old facade facing the busy avenue. The sidewalk before it is wide and a great pedestrian thoroughfare. There are news kiosks along the side of the walk closer to the road, and statues, and lamps closer to the buildings–shorter lamps that light only the sidewalk. The pedestrians surge more or less between the kiosks and the lamps, but there are so many they go beyond the lamps, except for one place: where the decaying building is. This they avoid, unconsciously but definitely. Nobody goes up close to it. Isn’t that interesting? I don’t think the fear is falling elements of the ruin, but the smell of vagrants. But it is the kind of thing Borges would have made a poem out of: a deft little thing, the meaning of which you had to see in the reflection of the mirror he made it be.

Organ Grinders

One of the prevalent sounds in Mexico City in the old section of monuments, parks and avenues is that of organ grinding. The instruments are not new: they’re mechanical not digital, claim German origin or Italian or both at once, are whistly and are stocked with tunes chosen for plaintiveness and Mexican familiarity mostly. The organ grinders have uniforms and often work in teams, one grinding while the other uses the hat to solicit contributions. They are pretty aggressive about soliciting, and usually the organ yields only one continuously repeated tune at any given place. Whether a succession can be obtained, or a different one arranged for, I do not know.

It is a good strong sound, and carries several blocks over the more muted sounds of today’s traffic, and the birds and of people going about. It is better than the orc sounds of digital production, and sweet, but I have very melancholy associations because I have seen them–twenty years ago–with monkeys, and that I associate with a rather lachrymose painting of one I saw before that, one of those terrible, sentimental, destructive pieces of non-art with nothing beyond it but only the unmitigated tragedy of an organ grinder, scratching his head, looking at a few coins in the hat, and his little monkey on the sidewalk with its tattered uniform and its sad, sad face. I don’t know why I should be prey to those cheap, false and manipulative things, but I am (I don’t even like to go to zoos and see caged animals), and when I hear the organ grinders in Mexico City that is the emotion the plaintive piping evokes. I feel pity for them, and I wonder if they labor with no assurance of a wage, and I wonder if I am being manipulated by what they do.

I would rather hear their sounds, but then because of the peculiar associations that arise, I would rather not. They are a Borgean element in the sound of this city for me, ambivalent. I gave one money when I was sitting on a bench reading and enjoyed the music for a while, but I don’t give them money when I just walk through the momentary aura of their sound. Can they live on that kind of arrangement? Does the city give them an inadequate basic wage which they then supplement with the tips they get? I would rather the thing were conserved, but is it less than decent labor and more like exploitation? All a human life is taken up in cranking a handle, as if it were a vocation. Is it that the whole thing could be motorized, that it strikes me pathetically? Then it would lose its point, though. What an odd instrument, and what an odd human connection, and what a fantastic place to have them around still.

I will have them more than I will not; in fact, I will have them precisely because I will not.

El Palacio de Bellas Artes

It is a concert hall built around the turn of the century–XIX to XX, that is. It is domed and splendid, white marble and black metal windows and lamps. There’s a small park in front of it with four interesting statues at its four corners. These statues are each composed of three figures. The highest figure is male and is aspiring higher with sight and gesture. He rides a leaping pegasus and beside them is the female figure, somehow caught up in the rising action. They’re wildly romantic statues, it seems to me, allegorical of art and soaring beyond. Beauty mediates transcendence, they suggest, in raptures. They are detailed too: you can see the wrinkles on the sole of the female figure’s arched foot.

Speaking of romanticism, the adjacent central park with shady walks and many elaborate fountains has all kinds of statuary, but the one nearest the palace of fine arts is to Beethoven. Nothing cold-souled or miserably calculating about the approach to great music here; none of this be not too wildly enamored of the far! The motto seems to be further up and further in with din and puissance.

The rectangular palace culminates at the front with an oval dome high above stairs, entryways, columns, balconies, the triangular part crowning the facade the name of which eludes me, and which has two semi domes flanking it below. The dome is culminated in black metal with standing figures, a ball above them, and the top surmounted by the eagle and serpent of the lore of the city’s founding. The domes have coppery tiles, deep orange near the top and fading to pale yellow at the bottom, a striking thing. They had to set this dome apart, I guess, because there are so many church domes with their cupolas and the twin bell towers poking up all around. Though the palace could swallow three of the nearby churches.

I remember its interior from of old. A fitting place where artistic endeavor has been valid.


Sanborns is a restaurant chain seen through urban Mexico. You will find them, as you will McDonald’s, in new buildings made to order and in the old ones as well. There is a splendid old building downtown, east of the palace of fine arts a block, south a block from another Sanborns that takes up another whole building, and located in the house of tiles–so called because the face of it has tiles. In the center of Mexico City you can just about find a Sanborns on every other block nowadays, and it is no wonder.

Besides being a restaurant, Sanborns is a mini department store. To get into the restaurants you usually have to navigate through the department store and the people buying. And the ever busy and solicitous employees. I think half the population of Mexico works at Sanborns. The cuisine in the restaurant is Mexican, of course, with specials from various regions cropping up.

The great challenge in describing Mexican food to Americans is the American concept of Mexican food perpetuated by that which is served to them as such in the USA. Let me suggest something of the difference by saying that the food served as Mexican in the USA is more about quantity, though it be more abundant in Mexico. Mexicans have an infinite variety of peppers and the sauces they derive from them. I have never yet encountered a dish here that included rice (though they exist), and while beans of course are an abundant part of the cuisine, they are by no means as monotonous or quite as ubiquitous down here. Mexico is a great vast country, and its various regions eat differently. One of the reasons I wanted to bring Katrina to the capital is that we have been in the north and the food is quite another. The jungle cuisine is different from the coastal and that different from the desert and that different from the highlands. One laments the expansionism of President Polk of old who reduced the Mexican territories by more than half and so limited the range of their cuisine. What have we reaped from that aggression? Better roads and more McDonald’s and Taco Bells and illegal immigrants to run our bad cuisine, and Doritos, alas!

I want to opine that Mexican food in Mexico City is humane, as Mexican food in the USA is not. It has a tradition, it has form, it has variety, it has established means, subtlety as well. It is rich, it is storied, it is in short a conservative cuisine. It has old roots, and old routes as well, and a popular base, for the folk eat flavorsomely, and the humble tortilla and all its derivatives comes not from the upper classes. What I want in the food I eat is a sense of cooking which has been valid, not organic kale; something that can be expected to be what it purports, not merely photogenic; something not simply expedient, but instead unpretentiously what it always has been through honest labor, before the gadgets and gimcrack cuisine of machines and the unnatural desires of fads.

And when this unambitious, humane cooking has its proper surroundings: no artificial music but the sounds of people’s conversations and of a fountain, the columns, the distant elaborate ceilings, the wrought lamps, the carved wood, the padded leather, the gracious stairs, the marble tile or parquet floors, the cloth napkins and placemats, the unostentatious–nay humble–silverware, the blue patterned crockery, the glass and the unaffected and solicitous service, when it has this, then what could one want more? It is not upscale, it is not trendy, it is not innovative, you can even get frosted flakes if that’s what you’d rather have, though the whole rest of the menu argues against it. I’m not talking about some stupid cult of simplicity–plain simple fare, homespun, blah blah blah, no indeed. But I am talking about a restaurant that knows what it is and does it honestly.

Sanborns actually apparently began in the house of tiles (built in the 17th Century and then house of the Counts of the vale of Orizaba for centuries). It was the first soda fountain in Mexico, begun with the Sanborn Hnos S.A. in 1907. A restaurant that has gone from strength to strength for over one hundred years can claim to be a place where the cuisine has been valid. Something of that is still retained, with the long counter that can seat about 50, and a counter in most of its downtown restaurants. I suppose when men cease to drink milkshakes, Sanborns will be threatened, or coffee. But till then . . . it has survived the tobacco ban and is vying to monopolize all polite, sensible eating in downtown Mexico City.

I will say the coffee is inferior, alas. But there are other things polite persons can drink, and all the fruit drinks are fresh. I am not sure all the world will find the place quite what I do, people’s tastes being so distorted from that which is true, but I can say that Sanborns in Mexico is at no loss for steady abundant sensible patronage.

First Impression

It has to be the sense of conglomeration. Mexico City has so many things in it. It is as if once they get something they keep it and just add on. For example: in transportation they have a subway. They also have regular buses, and the smaller buses at one time called peseros and maybe still, which are privately operated public transportation, or were and are still around. Besides this, they still have buses that run on overhead electric wires along certain routes like trams of old, and now they’ve added the jointed buses on special lanes, with stations and high doors that only allow access from a platform, like the TransMilenio in Bogota, only here called Metrobus. And taxis in profusion, and to top it all this bicycle rental fad–which they have taken to decidedly.

You expect that sort of thing in architecture–that’s one of the great things about an old city, the buildings answer to all its ages. Mexico City’s buildings can date back to the sixteenth century. Here you have those: buildings on which repairs have been periodically carried on for centuries, buildings of rock, of concrete, of glass; hotels of all descriptions; towers being built, buildings abandoned on the higher stories, just facades behind the windows of which one descries gardens; old small buildings being assimilated into the face of an overwhelming tower; kiosks, awnings, sculpted columns and plate glass. You also get that in monuments: is there any city in the world more adorned with statuary and sculpture at so many intervals? Probably, but I don’t think Mexico City is far outdone by any. The monuments range from periodic statues along an avenue for blocks and blocks, to a bust set in a quiet street, to huge piled up things in a roundabout with pillars and fountains and archers. Equestrian statues, angelic, and abstract: all. Close to where we stayed is a more modern abstract one softened and familiarized by having its name in the diminutive: El Caballito. A few street down instead of a monument in the roundabout they have an old tall palm. We stayed in the central and historic part of the city, so there are more things, but they are simply big on decorating. Even the defeat and conquest of Mexico City is commemorated, with an enormous series of pillars dedicated to the boy heroes who stood to the last against the forces of Winfield Scott.

Stores, restaurants, stands, the pervasive smell of the tortilla under everything being cooked, fried, seethed, roasted, the white of bunches of onions, the sauces, the sizzle, the smoke ascending, the vendor picking the last brains out of a pig’s boiled scull, the glass counters covered with hand written menus or displaying varieties of food, the vinyl records, the claptrap wares, chips and fruit, enormous crowded bakeries, cloth goods and leather, the typewriter repair store, the shoe shiner, jewelry, whole buildings and continuous makeshift stands that narrow the sidewalks to a trickle.

What is it like to go down one of these narrow sidewalks? There is always a steady stream of pedestrian traffic. I appreciate that Mexicans are polite about passing other people, when they are conscious of the other person. If your way of walking is aggressive you’ll find you can make steady progress. If you are the kind to defer to readily, you’ll be waiting. The tacit rules for defering are otherwise in Latin America, but more polite in Mexico than in Colombia. You progress in single file, waiting to pass amblers, being overtaken by people in a rush darting about shrewdly. The stalls are full of food, and you see mounds of gleaming diced onions, diced cilantro, bowls of the various sauces and pickled chilies, the stacks of tortillas, huaraches, sopes, the cheese, the meat cooking or keeping warm in heaps at the endge of the cooking surface. You smell it all, of course, and under the smell of all the food the warm smell of the corn tortilla which is I think the only one they really do in Mexico City. People are hunched over eating, looking around as they chew, ordering, phone twiddling. There’s the beggars, somebody wheedling money out of the passersby with music, and the stalls of cheap goods. Walking along the street is kaleidoscopic, really, and the whole time you should be alert for uneven pavements. I always like going fast, filling myself with sights and sounds by glance and impression rather than poking around, stopping and observing. It is wrong to think there are objects of contemplation, only those suited to fleeting, observant impression. You can go slow if you want, but if you go quickly you will never run out of city here.


The Federal District is what Mexicans call Mexico City. It is an old place, it is a big place, and it is a grand place–or was when I was last there twenty years ago. Do you know on that recent list of top restaurants in the world, Mexico City’s restaurants figured more than once? Not that that’s where I’ll end up, far from it; but there’s a trickle down effect. When I wrote my sister she registered envy: real tacos al pastor.

Real tacos al pastor indeed, and Sanborn’s and tortas at La Castellana on the corner of Las Flores and Insurgentes (it may nowadays be called Revolucion, I think, anyway, I know the subway station), where you get the best sandwich in the world. That reminds me, the streets of the Mexican capital change names sometimes after a couple of blocks. Wonderful place to get lost in because so few things are numerically designated. Socrates street, Seneca, Miguel Angel Quevedo and San Jeronimo Lidice, such names you will find, but not the more plodding designations of Bogotá where they all have numbers, mostly go in sequence, and announce whether they run north-south or east-west or go diagonally.

We are paying to stay at the right location, two blocks from the palace of fine arts. Plenty of subway stations, plenty of the heart of downtown, plenty of shaded avenue and parks: most places worth being at within walking distance. I didn’t really drink coffee twenty years ago, so that is something to discover this time around: the cafes. I’ve always wanted to take my wife there, and now at the best part, when the rainy season is waxing, sending daily predictable showers between 3-4PM to 5-6PM, cleansing the air and the patient ivy, gurgling down the boles of hoary trees. I love that city when it rains, love how Mexicans do restaurants, rejoice in the urbanity of a large scale metropolis, can’t wait.

The Urbs, the Urbs

The road led north through fall to where the lake laps winter. Great bridges in long, free spans that rise and fall, break to the left and to the right, open on something new, farther extend the extended road. Long sights, distant blue cities, the farms nearby, the rest stops that only pause our quest. The highway sped us, construction shunted and constrained us, the wind and rain and sunlight fell on us through blown leaves we left behind. Somewhere, rushing nowhere, a quiet creature goes by muddy waters listening as the reeds rustle in the local wind.

We walked Toronto’s busy sidewalks–bustling Chinatown, the autumnal colleges, the bleak downtown canyons under inhuman and inhospitable glasssteelconcrete monuments. They have an underground, a long, extended mall where out of the cold there is dry hot air in the warren of downtown. And we passed many, many people in that city of open acceptance–that destination of all the world. The museum was overflowing, prowled and thronged and still orderly. Tim Horton’s everywhere and everywhere a long line at the counter all day long and into night. Lines for the streetcars, every table taken behind glass, and rising over new towers construction cranes. Go to Canada and see the world.

I walk in Columbus now where along the sidewalks I can read. Perhaps on Campus there are more people. You see the law of proportions in the Short North, where the buildings are not towers dwarfing life–there people are and go and live and shop and eat and drink. Under the tower goes a luxury vehicle, crouching, poised for speed, alone on the street and the interior secluded all away behind hard glass as a bleak wind scatters the discarded leaves and paper.

The Chair

A chair in the sunlight is pleasant. This one matched the love seat set against the other windows. Three windows were in the round wall under the cone capping the turret–ceiling following the roof–and one lone window was under a gable set into the steeper slope of ceiling-wall. The windows mostly faced the west, so the afternoon and autumn sunlight came in all afternoon. In that part of Toronto the housing is of human proportions, so the third floor enjoys the sunlight through the thinner tops of trees. The seat alone at that lone window was low and graceful. Its back was oval and the carving of it unostentatiously elaborate. The window, reaching out through the slope of the roof, had a long sill that was more of a table, by which the chair was set conveniently. And beside the chair, a radiator, as the sun gave cheerful light upon one’s book and private room, but not all the required warmth.


A nice place, Cleveland. It is our new Duluth and I am inclined to believe it is better than our old Duluth. One visit is not enough, of course, to decide, but they did have a good place for lunch, an excellent city center, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, a place which rivals even the Minneapolis Institute of Arts–which I enjoyed a lot and miss almost as much as the skyways of Minneapolis. Actually, I think it may be bigger and better; the CMA requires a few more visits, of course, just to give the collection a good first going over, but it is a good, astonishing collection. I’ve never seen Etruscan stuff before.

It certainly seems a better city than Columbus, Cleveland. More things of interest in it, and it has Severance Hall. Seems a lot of chamber music activity goes on up there as well–heard mention of things on the radio. And it has more of a northern feel to it for some reason–perhaps that it is further north? The lake helps, and the arcades, the indoorness of the city center, the wind on the sidewalks, the massiveness of things downtown.

A good fall day we picked to go up through the Ohio autumn, with sun and rain and leaves borne on the wind.