Friday, June 29, 2007


Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first vehicular confession.

I have to admit that I thought Click and Clack were kidding last Saturday when they said that the Vatican had issued a set of Ten Commandments for the motorist. I did a little Web surfing and almost drowned. It turns out that for the past decade the Church has been studying the subject of “people on the move” with the intensity that they might have brought to bear on, say, original sin at the Council of Trent. Just seeing the Vatican Web site on my computer screen was enough to make me gasp for air. The full document, “Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road,” issued in English on June 19, 2007, runs to thirty-two single-spaced pages in four parts, with numbered paragraphs. The Drivers’ Ten Commandments can be found in Part I, Chapter 5, Verse 61. (I will spare you the link—better you should be shopping for Amazing Norbert products.) I had to scan the whole thing in order to find out what I really wanted to know, which was whether or not it had been written in Latin. It had not.

Driving in Rockaway combines the worst features of New York City driving and beach driving. It tends to be both aggressive and lax, executed under the influence of sun and languorousness but with habitual impatience. Last Sunday, on a trip of some seventeen city-beach blocks, I managed to violate at least three traffic laws, and annoy one fellow-motorist, without even thinking about it.

First, instead of turning right at the end of my street, and having to sit at a really long light to make a left, and then make another left, when what I really wanted to do was turn left in the first place, I just shot through the intersection under the El—after looking both ways, of course, to make sure no cars were coming, especially no police cars—easily fitting between the signs marked “Right Turn Only.” Everybody does it, including the police. And though the city annually erects a fourth pole so that a car can’t fit through, someone on the block—which is rich in union men, building supers, engineers, and contractors—makes it his business annually to saw the pole off close to the ground.

At the next corner, I made a perfectly legal left turn, onto Rockaway Beach Boulevard, and two blocks later another legal left turn at the laundromat, where I did a shockingly bad job of parallel parking (the spot was extremely spacious and did not offer enough of a challenge to engage my parking skills; besides, I was only going to be there for a minute). This is a dead-end street, and when I went to pull out, there was a moving van ahead, and no place to make a three-point turn. So I put the car in reverse, intending to back into the near lane of the Boulevard, and then straighten out and proceed, essentially making a right turn. But, seeing that there was no traffic and that I really wanted to go in the other direction, I backed all the way through the intersection to the other side of the Boulevard and made a right (essentially a left).

So far, so good. Now I realized that to get where I was going, I really should have been under the El, on the Rockaway Freeway, where I knew I could make a left-hand turn—a legal left-hand turn—at Beach 84th Street. From the Boulevard, I didn’t know the best place to turn. Suddenly I was inspired by the realization that the good beverage store was just ahead on my left, and I could kill yet another bird on this one-stone trajectory by stopping to buy a case of seltzer. So I slowed down, there in the left-hand lane, and just as the “Closed” sign came into focus (damn—well, it was past seven on a Sunday evening), I became aware of a motorist behind me, who honked and passed on the right. I didn't notice any gesture.

Proceeding on my merry way (as my mother would say), I watched on the left for a through street under the El, and I was so intent on peering down the cross streets that I was halfway into my turn before I noticed that a traffic light was dangling over the intersection and that it was red. Whoops. There was a truck behind me from the D.E.P. I don’t believe that the Department of Environmental Protection is empowered to issue traffic tickets, but I stopped, just in case. Now I was blocking traffic in three directions, or would have been if there had been any traffic to block. Since I was doing more harm than good in this position, I went ahead and completed the turn.

It was this third infraction that made me examine my conscience. I used to be a good driver, and now here I was breaking the law left and right, and straight ahead. Then again, I used to be a good Catholic.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

When in Rockaway

Alternate-side parking has rarely been a problem in my neighborhood in Rockaway (which is not to say that parking isn’t a giant problem in other neighborhoods in Rockaway, and, along with potholes and street markings and parallel vs. diagonal and DFDs—people who are Down for the Day, as opposed to residents—a source of passionate contention in the Wave, the peninsula’s local weekly). On my street the rules are in effect Mondays and Tuesdays from 11:30 A.M. to 1 P.M. This means that on Sunday night I park on one side of the street, and on Monday night I move the car to the other side of the street. Simple. And there’s never any need to sit in the car (even if one’s schedule permitted) and take a keen interest in street cleaners. The only trouble is that I can never remember which side of the street I’m supposed to be parking on.

I suffer from a form of directional dyslexia, which means that I have trouble distinguishing between left and right, east and west, north and south, prone and supine. I’d have trouble with up and down, too, if it weren’t for gravity, and just wait till I get to port and starboard. If it’s Monday and my car is on the left, or east, side of the street, is that O.K.? Yes, even though the sign says Tuesday. It’s counterintuitive: One can’t help but be drawn to the side of the street with that day of the week written on it (remember days-of-the-week underpants?), yet that is exactly the wrong side to park on. Sometimes it’s easier to just go around the block, where there is a street of new houses, with parking pads, and the city has not yet gotten around to posting alternate-side-parking rules, so anything goes.

During my recent trip to Amsterdam, I had a long-term plan for parking, which may help lodge in my memory the correct alternate-side formula. I departed on a Wednesday and returned on a Monday, so before I departed (I hesitate to use the word “left” in this context) I had to move my car from its Tuesday spot, on the right, or west, side of the street, to a spot on my side of the street, the left, or east, side, which would be good through Monday. In this case, the left side of the street was the right side of the street, as in the correct or proper side of the street. It was on my calendar, immediately on my return, to move the car and pay the Visa bill. If it hadn’t been on the calendar, I might have forgotten, because these rules are almost too simple, and, after all, the entire Atlantic Ocean and almost a week in Amsterdam had interceded between me and my parking spot and Visa bill. Now I can visualize my car on my side of the street when I got home that Monday (thanks to my neighbor C., who picked me up at the airport in her black Mustang convertible with the top down—che dolce vita!). Unfortunately, I can also visualize the gelatinous glob that someone lobbed on my windshield and that smeared when I turned the windshield wipers on and then, in its stickiness, attracted dirt and grit. (Next stop: car wash.)

I don’t like to brag, but I think I may also have mastered prone and supine. It’s kind of a long way round, but supine begins with the letter “S,” and so does snake and so does sinuous, both words that I can readily associate with the spine and its S shape and the fact that when you lie on your back on the mat to do your Pilates exercises your spine should form a gentle "S.” Also, supine has "up" in it, as in “face up.” As for prone, it has an “o” in it, as in "face down." Besides, it’s the only alternative.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


The last I saw of Norbert on Thursday night/Friday morning, he was perched on the white metal kitchen cabinet at about 4 A.M., peeking around the doorway into the bedroom, having used every trick in his repertoire—rampaging through the bungalow, knocking an ashtray, a candlestick, a tea cannister onto the floor, leaping with a thud from the refrigerator to the balance beam of the wall that doesn’t go all the way up to the ceiling—to wake me up. This, and the steady purring and nuzzling of Madison, beside me on the pillow, is sometimes enough to make me get out of bed and give them what they want: a between-meals snack that would buy me a few more hours of sleep. But that night I remained steadfastly in bed.

Now, Norbert is not exactly underfed, but this did not prevent me, when he didn’t come to breakfast in the morning, from feeling guilty for having made him share one small can of cat food with Madison the night before. I can’t leave dry food out because of the ant problem. And Norbert needs a constant supply of kibble the way I need a constant supply of Kiebler’s.

I looked in all the rooms and on all the high shelves that Norbert launches himself up to, and then I checked the front-porch screen that bellies out and that a cat could possibly tumble out of if he jumped up on the ledge in mid-rampage or leaned his weight against it. I should have stapled it down long ago, but I always thought if I lost my keys I would have this inlet, and Norbert, who was a foundling (albeit a foundling on Fifth Avenue), has never shown any desire to escape. I went out and looked between the houses, just in time to see a black cat crawl under the bungalow. I had this wild hope that the black cat was showing me where Norbert went. My flashlight battery was all but dead, but I knelt down and tried to see under the bungalow. All I saw was that my plumbing had sprung a leak.

I needed to shower and get to an appointment on the Upper West Side before work, which meant being on the A train platform at 7:59. I knew I was going to call my neighbor C., the Catwoman, who might have some idea not where Norbert went but how to go about looking for him. But it was still only seven, so I made some coffee in order to think straight about my missing cat. The other cat, meanwhile, was blissfully unconcerned. She ate her breakfast, and she ate Norbert’s. Then she stretched out in a sunbeam on top of some boxes, looking ravishing. Chill, she tells me. We don’t need him anyhow.

Norbert has a weakness for kibble, so I got the kibble bag out of the oven (where I have to keep it so he can’t get at it; he recently mistook a bag of bloodmeal for a kibble bag and tore it open while I was at work, spreading dirt all over the living-room floor) and took it outside and shook it as I called his name. For some reason, I walked down to the deli, as if that would be Norbert’s first destination. (Maybe I was projecting.) He would certainly be easier to spot on the street than in the bungalow colony, a block dense with houses, like a checkerboard, and full of cats, both strays and outdoor cats with owners, all of whom, I might add, respond to the sound of kibble. This adventure was further complicated by the fact that Norbert rarely meows. He’s not mute, but for some reason he has developed the habit of silence. I’ve heard him meow only a handful of times, and have never figured out what motivates him, so I have no reason to believe that he might find his voice in a moment of distress.

I called and cancelled my appointment, then woke up my neighbor C. She came over with a flashlight and we poked around under the bungalow some more. Unlike me, she was certain that Norbert had stayed nearby and not gone to the deli. “I think I see him,” she said, and I had a momentary sensation of relief when a pink nose appeared from under the latticework, but it was Buster, our court's top cat, who is dark gray and white like Norbert but darker over all, and slimmer and more muscular. Buster pads down the walk every morning with his tail sticking straight out behind him. We were also assisted in our search by Buster Jr., a smaller replica of Buster who is fitted with a green collar, as well as by the black cat I'd seen earlier, Harley, and a white-and-pale-gray cat. I went down to their house and poured them a pile of kibble in the hope that it would keep them occupied long enough to give Norbert a chance to come out. “If only people would keep their cats inside!” I wailed to C. She has nine indoor cats, and feeds a whole passel in her court, which the ASPCA has fixed and tagged, so they are an official colony. Our block may sometimes reek of cat piss, but at least we don’t have rats. The other dramatis feles are Nestor, a fluffy strawberry-blond in the corner house (his name in Queens is pronounced Ness-tuh), and Smooch, on the back court, a mostly white cat with a little black Hitler mustache who is sometimes neglected and sleeps on the roof. My two cats don’t go outside: Madison has no front claws (her previous owner did this; I would never declaw a cat), and Norbert knew he was onto a good thing when Daysi, my catsitter, rescued him from in front of her employers’ building and adopted him for Madison and me while I was in Greece four years ago.

Everyone loves Norbert, though he has a tendency to nip and put his head in your pocketbook and hiss when you try to get your bag back. He didn’t purr at all at first, so unaccustomed was he to comfort, but finally a velour throw or a fleece robe would do it for him, and he began to knead and purr. He has a face like parted curtains—an inverted widow’s peak, gray framing white—and a pink nose. His other markings are like a tuxedo cat’s, except that instead of pure black he has black-and-gray tiger stripes that morph into a tortoiseshell spots. C. said recently that he looks like he’s wearing a white scarf, but I see it the other way: a white cat wearing a gray-and-black saddle blanket. He walks like John Wayne.

I called the office and said I couldn’t come in till I'd found Norbert. I made one trip to the hardware store for a new flashlight battery. I had a pit in my stomach as if a meteorite had landed there. Every once in a while I’d go out to the street with the kibble and shake the bag and call his name in all its variations: Norbert! Norbertino! Norbertone! (C. calls him Norby.) There is a honeysuckle vine blooming on the street, and though I’ve always loved honeysuckle—it’s blooming now along the A-train tracks—for the first time it smelled too sweet. Had Norbert ruined honeysuckle?

There was another source of guilt: Two days earlier, my neighbor T., across the court, had lost one of her turtles. She had put the two turtles, about the size of bicycle helmets, outside in a plastic pool. “I’ve been dying to do this,” she said. She arranged a few stones in the middle for them, in case they wanted to bask, and bought them a bag of goldfish—real goldfish, not Pepperidge Farm—which they chased around and snapped up. I had watched one of the turtles stand on the other to try to heave himself up over the lip of the pool—he toppled back, in classic turtle-on-its-back style, but was able to flip himself over by using his hind feet—so I was not surprised when she told me, mournfully, that one of her turtles had escaped. Now I felt that I hadn’t shown T. enough sympathy. The turtle was probably under the deck, which was securely fenced in, and short of ripping up the deck, it looked like it would be impossible to find him. She’d taken the other turtle back inside. “Think of it this way,” I said. “Now you have an indoor turtle and an outdoor turtle.”

The first sign of hope was when the Catwoman heard something by T.’s fence and looked under the deck. “It’s the turtle!” she said. Just then Buster Jr. came along, and the turtle fled (as best it could). I got my stepladder and climbed over the fence onto T.’s deck. C. fetched a plastic dish pan from my kitchen, then spotted the turtle again. He was out in the open. I knew that one of the turtles was called Snappy, so I was very careful picking him up, but he wanted to be rescued. “Look how dehydrated he is,” C. said. I hosed him down a bit. When he started trying to climb the walls of the dish pan (stupid turtle), we decided he’d be better off in the cooler, which was deeper. In case he was hungry, I threw in a few big leaves of escarole. Meanwhile, C. called T. on her cell phone to give her the glad tidings. I allowed myself to hope that if we had found a turtle, we could find a cat.

Everybody said, “He’ll come back. My cat got out once, and he was gone two days/three days/one week, but he came back.” Three days! I couldn’t be out here kneeling in the dirt next to the bungalow at five in the morning for three days, but then again I couldn’t not. Norbert is famous. His name is known from Hastings to Provincetown, Montreal to Aruba. A year ago, I had gone to a big group art show in Red Hook, Brooklyn and, turning a corner, come across a Coney Island sideshow-style banner of a black-and-white cat: “The Amazing Norbert—Sees All, Knows All, Eats All—25 lbs. Alive!” I left a note for the artist—Johanna Gargiulo Sherman—telling her that, incredibly, I, too, had a cat named Norbert with a tendency to overeat, and she got in touch. Her Norbert was also a foundling with a weakness for kibble, and had a crush on a cat named Lily, who wouldn't give him the time of day. "The Amazing Norbert" was not for sale, because she was putting it on Cafe Press, meaning that there was a whole line of Amazing Norbert products, everything from thongs and baby bibs to trivets and bicycle messenger bags. I have since become her best customer. Would all those mugs and T-shirts and calendars turn into bitter reminders of the day Norbert went away?

My mother used to tell the story of my brother, as a toddler, getting lost at Euclid Beach, our local amusement park. It may have been for two minutes or two hours, but I could imagine her distress, her inability to be consoled by people saying, “Oh, he’ll turn up,” or “Pray to St. Anthony.” This is just the sort of thing that makes me promise to reform, to lose weight and give up caffeine and alcohol, to tithe ten percent of my income to the church, if only I can see his little face, with his pink nose and heavy black eyeliner, peeking around the bedroom door again.

T. got home in the evening and, after taking her turtle inside, came out to shake kibble and call Norbert with me. Suddenly it seemed like there were an unusual lot of airplanes leaving JFK in a flight path directly over the bungalows, one every two minutes, and intolerably loud. Norbert would never come out from wherever he was with all this racket.

By now I had also cancelled my evening plans, and people were saying Norbert was more likely to come out after dark, when things had quieted down. I was inside agonizing when a neighbor on the back court came to my front door and said, “Did you lose a cat? Is he big and fat?” This was no time for vanity, so I admitted that, yes, Norbert was on the portly side. “We think we see him. He’s between two bungalows, across from my girlfriend’s.”

I went over there, where the girlfriend and her little boy were out in front of her house. She pointed between two bungalows, and there at the end of the gravel path was Norbert, his back to the wall. I walked over some piles of siding stored between the bungalows, and when I got to Norbert he ducked under the house. I lifted a flap of siding and he stuck his head out. I took him by the scruff of the neck and drew him out from beneath the house and lifted him up. T. and her husband were coming up the walk as I came out with Norbert, and they looked as happy as if Norbert were their own prodigal son. When I got him home, he went back to the porch ledge by the loose screen, which I’d put masking tape over but which I now hastened to staple firmly into place, and then staple some more. I think he was trying to reconstruct what had happened. I gave him some kibble. The next day I had to work in a trip to the pet store, because there was no doubt that during his day in the wild Norbert got fleas.

My religious feelings have now subsided, and I can resume buying Amazing Norbert products, but I’m not sure honeysuckle will ever be the same.

Photo by Hylary Kingham

Self-Portrait with Cheeses

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Nose Doctor

So I went to the ENT, or ear-nose-and-throat doctor—a.k.a. the otorhinolaryngologist, for you classicists out there—and was very taken by his tissue dispenser. Turns out I have tinnitus (not to be confused with Tintinitis, a reaction to Belgian cartoon characters).

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


This is in the exhibit at the Dikker & Thijs Fenice Hotel in Amsterdam.

From a slight distance.

From farther away.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Anne Frank's Birthday

No one would go with me to the Anne Frank House. I can’t say that I blame them. It’s a bit hard to plan what you’re going to do next, after visiting the Anne Frank House. Take the Heineken Brewery tour? Get stoned in a coffee shop? I don’t think so.

I’d been to Amsterdam three times before (though never for more than five days at a stretch), so I was overdue for this literary pilgrimage. Also, I’d just read Philip Roth's “The Ghost Writer,” in which Nathan Zuckerman visits the eminent writer E. I. Lonoff in Connecticut and gets snowed in and fantasizes that Lonoff’s protégée, Amy Bellette, is really Anne Frank, who has survived the war but must live under an assumed name, because the fact of her survival would undermine her posthumous literary success. If there was ever a time for me to go to the Anne Frank House, this was it.

The Anne Frank House is on the Prinsengracht, in the neighborhood called the Jordaan. I entered the house behind a troop of scouts from Slovenia or somewhere, in uniforms the color of tiger lilies. Actually, I tried to avoid being behind the Slovene scouts by going into a bagel café next door and killing some time on the Internet, which was free to customers. But I caught up with them, and then they kept catching up with me.

As a travel destination, the Anne Frank House is the opposite of the Alhambra. The building had been the office and warehouse of Otto Frank’s pectin business, Opekta, and on the lower floors there is documentation of the firm and information about the loyal employees who ran it (and who protected the Franks). There are flat-screen TVs with footage of Nazis and Allies to set the historical tone, the voice of an actress with a British accent reading Anne Frank’s words, passages from the diary, in Dutch and English, stencilled on the walls. On the second floor is the bookcase concealing the stairway to the secret annex, at the top floor rear of the building: two floors of small shabby rooms and an attic, the only decoration being the photographs of movie stars and royalty that Anne pasted on the walls of the room she shared with an elderly dentist.

I must have been about thirteen when I read “The Diary of a Young Girl,” as it was called, and I just didn’t get it. I was keeping a diary myself at the time, and had precious little to report (it snowed; I made cheerleader; maybe I would become a nun). I’d never met a Jew. I was simply ignorant. Now I am aghast. How did it escape my awareness that this girl did not go outside for more than two years? I am someone who likes to be outside when the weather’s nice, to sit at sidewalk cafes; I keep the windows open even when it’s raining, and always roll down the windows in the car. Here is Anne Frank on August 10, 1943: “When I get up in the morning ... I leap out of bed, think to myself, ‘You’ll be slipping back under the covers soon,’ walk to the window, take down the black-out screen, sniff at the crack until I feel a bit of fresh air, and I’m awake.”

The attached museum was even more stifling than the annex. I looked at the original diary, under glass, in its red plaid cover, and the documentation of the deaths, at the hands of the Nazis, of all the inhabitants of the annex except Otto Frank, and then Anne Frank said to me, Go outside and get some fresh air. Before I left, I stopped in the bookstore; it was astonishing to see the shelves and shelves of different translations. I bought a paperback copy of the diary—it was the obvious thing to read next. Anne Frank wrote on April 27, 1943, that “the Carlton Hotel has been destroyed. Two British planes loaded with firebombs landed right on top of the German Officers’ Club. The entire corner of Vijzelstraat and Singel has gone up in flames.” That’s exactly where I was propped up in bed reading, in the Carlton Hotel Jolly, on Vijzelstraat and Singel, on a Saturday night. I couldn't sleep because of the noise outside, and I couldn't bring myself to close the windows.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


Last week's Times was full of interest--the cell-phone parking lot at JFK, the truck that was too tall for the Lincoln Tunnel but went through it anyway, "peeling back the roof of his tractor-trailer as if it were a tin can," and, on the weekend, the plot to blow up the jet-fuel tanks at JFK--but it was all eclipsed here in Amsterdam by the news in La Repubblica that Bush was afraid to go to Trastevere. Pietro was delighted: he lives in Trastevere. But what a pity for Bush to have missed the mosaics at Santa Maria in Trastevere, and the Church of Santa Cecilia with its white marble martyr and the Last Judgment fresco in the choir loft. The change in Bush's itinerary set off the feud between Prodi and Berlusconi (called il Cavaliere). Berlusconi said he was ashamed of the country; Prodi, au contraire, said that it was il Cavaliere who was a discredit to Italy.

So I am still deep into Italian, even though I am in Amsterdam. I'm staying in the Hotel Jolly Carlton, or the Carlton Hotel Jolly, which is an Italian chain, at the expense of the I.I.C. (the Istituto Italiano di Cultura per i Paesi Bassi). There is a three-pronged opening of works by D Artagnan, who was an artist and in the end a homeless person in Rome but who is being celebrated here through the window of his connection with Fellini. There is a show of faces, or masks, in the hotel bar of the Dikker & Thijs Fenice, on the Prinsengracht. It looked to me like a portrait gallery (I'll post pictures). The bar was down a few steps from the street, with a view of the people going by in boats, on bikes, in cars, on foot: trees, a big round kiosk whose purpose seems to be as a posterboard, fresh air, and a glass of prosecco ... Yes, you too can lead la dolce vita.

The party had begun the night before, in the Paramariboplein, where Ella Arps put on a Fellini theme party. Her gallery has a show of D'Artagnan's erotic work. The I.I.C. has a show of priapic art and documentation of his career. Here on Thursday night was a kind of conference on D'Artagnan, with the launch of Pietro Gallina's memoir "On the Margins of La Dolce Vita." This is the saddest book I've ever read: Michele Stinelli, as he was then called, was an orphan, abandoned in Venice; he played the trumpet, was beloved of Fellini—that's him under the black umbrella at the end of "Amarcord"—and became obsessed with finding his true parents. He learned that his mother had been a harpist with La Scala, and it's possible that his father was Toscanini. But he died homeless, never having been accepted by any family except Pietro's, when Pietro's mother rented him a room in her home in the old Roman Forum, back in the fifties.

The life may have been sad, but the paintings are happy, and Pietro is giving his boyhood friend a robust afterlife. There is a new film—not so much a documentary as an homage—"Sognando Fellini" ("Dreaming Fellini"), by Alberto Felicetti, which edits the movies D'Artagnan was in, picking out his silhouette and isolating it on the screen, and making him the star of a three-minute version, while superimposing details from drawings of his that date from the time of the filming (all the works are heavily documented by D'Artagnan himself, on front and back; Ella Arps has figured out ways to frame them so that you can see both sides). The festival culminates this afternoon at the Museum of Cinema with a double feature of Fellini films and another showing of "Sognando Fellini."

The sun is starting to shine in Amsterdam, and it's time I blew this coffee shop. Could it be that I'll need sunglasses? I got caught in the rain twice, once, delightfully, at a bar when I had taken a table inside by an open window and everyone at the outdoor tables had to hustle when the rain and wind came. Then one night when I was supposed to meet some people in the Rembrandtplein, when the sky opened and I ended up in a pizzeria called Pinocchio, where the pizza, like Pinocchio, seemed to be made of wood (it taught me never to eat in a restaurant named for a liar), watching the street flood and the lightning and a parade of tourists with Amsterdam souvenir umbrellas.

Yesterday, in my search for lunch, I went past the Argentine and Thai and Italian and Indian and Indonesian restaurants to an Irish pub in Chinatown, where I had a peaceful table alongside a canal that runs behind the church of St. Nicholas (Santa Claus lived there). It was the best shepherd's pie I've ever had.

Coming Soon: The High Price of Internet Access for Tourists in Amsterdam