Surprises are the most normal thing

The Uber X arrives. I open the door.

Beatrix, I identify myself. Are you Idris? I show him his own face on my iPhone. He lets out a deep sigh.

When he makes a slight right turn into the flow of the empty street, more sighs follow. Every couple of minutes, another sigh.

After a while I ask him: Will your day soon be over?

No. Started. Heavy accent. Sigh.

Where are you from? I ask.

Turkey. Sigh.

You are? He turns fully back to me, his grave, round face preoccupied with everything.

I am German.

Germany good. Friendly. Many Turkish people.

Yes, I say. He drives on. His sighs seem to come from deep within.

I feel like distracting him: Where do you live?

I Queens. When drive the bridge, I stress. Too much stress driving.

He turns all the way round to me again, in full motion.

Isn’t being an Uber driver a good job? You can make your own time.

This opens the floodgates.

Oh, no, no, no. So much stress. I get ticket for standing, getting sandwich. Get ticket for going toilet. Where go toilet? I ask police. He not know. Not here, he say. I pay tickets, no income. Where can driver go toilet? Huh?

He turns around to me again. I shake my head.

Stress, so much. Must go to toilet more. I ask, nobody know.

By now we are in the thickest of West Side Highway traffic jams, accompanied by his sighs. Stress, too much, he says, maneuvering behind the slowest-moving snake.

Just back from Turkey. Vacation. You don’t believe. I was in hospital, five weeks. Five weeks!

A full turn back to me, leaving his motor vehicle to its own devices. - I was in coma. Three week. On beach, with family. I not feel good. In hospital I am a dead man. When I wake, my wife speaks Turkish. I not know her. She must! Nobody of family speak English. She must! She is teacher. She can write into Turkish language. Learn in three week.

She must be so intelligent, I say politely. Does she have a job?

No job. Stress is terrible to me.

Perhaps you should look into another job.

I was working in bakery. Too much stress. Get up five o’clock. Go to work. Boss already there, baking. Do this, do that. Idris, clean big bucket. Idris, learn faster. Make bread. Make dough. I not know so much stress in America.

Yes, but good work here too. Good opportunity. My English starts to shrink, contrary to the rising dough he had to produce. He is in a rage about stress.

On both sides of us the cars move swiftly. Only we are in slow mode.

Why don’t you take a right, to get into the moving line?

Hmmm? He turns around.

Just go right. It moves! I say.

Stress, stress, he sighs. Maybe I move to new city. New York too much stress. No toilet for drivers. You get ticket.

Yes, move to Ohio, I hear myself, with no idea where it is coming from. Just far away. That I know. There is much less stress.

He fully turns to me, his features enlightened. Oh, lady, you tell me.

Please watch where you’re driving.

Oh, so good advice! he continues, now with his face to the traffic, his eyes in the mirror, so he can see me. I am getting anxious. At this pace, when will I ever arrive?

Feeling his enthusiasm, I say: You are the man for the vegetable business. A stand. You know? You don’t have to move. People come to you.

In Ohio. A vegetable stand. Like one in Turkey. So good. My wife can work. I supervise.

Well, she should be in her own profession.

Yes, yes, right. She can teach, and be at vegetable stand. Like help out when I have to go toilet.

He is now driving fast, faster than the other cars. After we pass through a vehicular sickroom he has discovered a new land, the land of honey.

No stress in Ohio. I can buy house. Not expensive. Have vegetable stand. My wife has work.He starts to sing a Turkish song: Uskudara gideriken aldida bir yagmur...

The piers slide by in slow motion. New Jersey’s intricate skyline cutouts against the pink sky of rush hour. The melancholy Hudson dips in and out of sight, in between events: a plane; a ship on display, catching the light from tourist illumination; bicyclists on the green banks.

Maybe private secretary for Turkish business, my wife. Import/export, in Ohio. Germany, many Turkish living in Germany, very happy.

He does another full swivel. I hold on to my seatbelt. Please, driver, follow the road.

Yes, yes. Here too much stress. In Ohio no stress. German people good people, no stress.

I can only blink at the skyline of Lower Manhattan, my destination. But I am afraid to take my eyes away for a second. I can picture myself being wrenched into a carambolage of major proportions, larger than the one we just passed, and missing my chance to press against the glass, all because my driver has veered off into a new life of which I am the founder, the visionary of his America.

I don’t know about that, I mumble exhaustedly. You should just live in a smaller city. Sometimes change is good.

Yes, thank you, Ohio is good. I work with shoemaker, so much stress. Woman wants shoe right quick.

He turns off the West Side Highway into Canal. We are so close that I feel my whole body leaning forward to shorten this trip, helping with my posture, as when a mother opens her mouth to spoon-feed her child.

I open the door while the car is still rolling. Goodbye, I say into his grinning face. Ohio is a state.

A moment of surprise flits over his already entered future life.

Oh, nice. No city. No stress.
Katibimin setresi uzun...

The Hoarder, XXXJ

I am a writer and would like to write you a long letter. But since you will not read it, the only thing that would make sense would be for me to read it to you. But that would make the letter obsolete.

Nice day


If it is less than 27 words I’ll read it.


The elevator gets me up to his floor. The door is an iron gate. It stands wide open, lending a frame to man on a chair further into a room. The light through the window sets him off like a nobleman. He sits there, expecting me.

As I approach he stands. The deserted chair dwarfs into child size. He is a very tall man, with the features of a Roman Emperor, or of Bacchus. A gentle giant.

The room I enter is enormous, like a mantle for his mind. Through the windows, in the far distance, a miniature world against the sky, with those unpredictable April clouds.

Look, he says, pointing to a long wall with shelves. Twenty iPods are playing, each its own music of water.

This is The Waters of Panama, he screams above the noise, having cranked up the volume. I will be exhibiting it in a gallery. Don’t you think the computer should be larger?

The noise, both familiar and not, is a concert of events. Everything water does. You know it, and yet it has never been put together, collected into one overwhelming, Wagnerian opus. The pending drama of a future, with the scarcity of it.

Yes, I scream. Larger computers.

I am drowning.

The table, the size of two billiard greens, holds a garden of kitsch and toys. Robots. Dolls. Cars. Pinups. A child’s toyland. A garden of earthly delights by Hieronymus Bosch. The tall walls are hung with African paintings of edible quality. Sofas for ten. Chairs made from thousands of beads which have escaped from the Ivory Coast.

He whisks me out of this room. We walk into the dining room. Gurgling sounds, more water music. A giant copula lamp above the round table.

Ingo Maurer, he says.

I nod. - I ate here once, when your friend invited me.

He points at another wall, with a board, and now I know where the noise is coming from. Here, in another row of iPads. It is him, swimming underwater, totally enjoying his element, with the same joy as a fish, or a walrus, or an otter; and yet I sense a desperation to come up for air, for life.

XXXJ is introducing himself to me, not with a litany of words, but with pictures, through his objects. These are the ingredients that transform his personality into a feast. They are his flesh and bone.

We stroll along a hallway. Cabinets, wood panels. I am breathing in the manifold of design.

Ettore Sottsas, my friend, did the apartment for me. We had so much fun.

I can tell. The joy is obvious. The alternation of play and necessity, the boundless affluence of unrestrained love. A thousand designs of wood commanding joy and function, one and the same.

We go upstairs, through a tunnel of Sottsas’ woods, rounded walls, like a crinolined ball gown. Then bedrooms, bathrooms, shelves with pinup statuettes, walls along corridors lined with tennis shoes, sneakers of every style and color. One hundred pairs? Three hundred? Sweaters and t-shirts, piled and stacked on chairs, on dressers, on beds.

An oval glass room, with an oval table. Computers are monitoring the world, the stars, firmament, galaxies. The toyland of a child king. The latest and greatest, only a button push away. It defines an existence. The sender revealing a clue to the content. The delight of possession is in the mind.

There is a whole apartment filled with unopened boxes.

I am reliving a childhood I never had. - He sits down on a small highchair, in front of a small board. The leftovers of a bachelor’s breakfast, next to his bedroom.

He puts on the belt he just found between the rows of forgotten jackets. Fifty? One hundred and fifty?

He laughs: Nothing can be removed. My parents were not very nice people...

Did he ever cling to his mother’s arm? That tree-branch of reassurance? Did his father show him the crickets in the meadows, or, faced with a gigantic primal man, did he cling to a nanny?

You are a hoarder, I say. I know one already.

Yes, I am a hoarder. He laughs.

We pass another wall of African art, another chain of sneakers, shelves of robots, objects of incredible beauty.

I am enchanted by his lightness of being.

I collect friends.

And women?

Yes, that too.

I know he emerged into his enchanted forest from the thicket of despair.

Sottsas’ wood panels, from mint-leaved trees throughout the world.

XXXJ reminds me of the museum at the Castle in Prague. A library of books, each bound with the bark of a different tree species. When you open them, they are revealed as boxes. There are no written words on ancient paper. No, the boxes are filled with the trees’ barks, seeds, leaves, hulls, rings, fruits. A child’s history of nature morte, of a life, seventeenth-century, to be sung, visited, marveled at, as children do when they look at some species they very well understand without a word being said.

XXXJ, will you read my 993 words, a collection of thoughts, the beginning of anything, the opening of a gate, of your Panamanian water symphony. A fearless gesture of intimacy, a weighty door into a drama, and all together and above, the wide open doors of laughter.

No mothers, no daughters, no sons. Only lovers, and loves and beloved. A somnambulist of symbols. What it is. What it symbolizes.

Where is the truth, in reality? It is replaceable, but cannot replace the spot in the heart of a man-child.

Small Gestures

The magnitude of small

...At the Halline salt mines, one of the miners gave her a present of a twig...When they returned to the surface of the earth once again, the rays of the sun set off in it a manifold glittering...which had transformed the dead twig into a truly miraculous object, appeared...as an allegory for the growth of love in the salt mines of the soul...

W.G. Sebald

And then Nature has endless gestures for us. We take them as givens but really they are gifts.

Toya from Thailand prepared a meal for us. She is loud in the kitchen, and demanding of herself. In her tiny body reigns a general. For truth and attention.

The kitchen is the center of everything during the day. The slate tabletop can become crowded with opinions. If you need to make a phone call you had best leave the room.

It is night now. The meal the general cooked, with its fiery Thai flavors, has been arranged on a long serving board for the guests to take and sit down around the table in the great hall. This is where we dine in celebration. The light is given by candles.

We eat in slow motion. Paintings look down upon us. There is a monkey with spectacles on. A dog, a mastiff, just devoured a woman’s shoe. Freud symbolized into a landscape. Birds with their eggs flying through a sulking nature of trees. Tall figures sculpted and bound with straw, standing by, watching. The stuffed head of a bear.

On both sides of the great hall, doors are wide open, and further on, fires are burning. Beloved house.

When you look up to the silent ceiling above our plates, your eyes catch a gigantic arrangement of twigs and nests and painted eggs, forming a halo of communion. It is Easter. There are a few people missing now, out smoking, filling their glass.

Through the door into the quiet twin room, I see one guest sitting by himself. In utmost comfort, I can tell, one with his thoughts. Part of him is obscured by yet another floral wonderment of Kasia’s genius.

It is Brantley. I know it is him. The moment I have swallowed my last forkful of fish, I want to join him in his silence. He fits into my house like a son.

He rolls a cigarette philosophically and starts talking about Texas, taking a critical look at his origins. He is a Finnegan, can mix Texan and Irish accents like a ballade. I laugh a lot. I can understand the brilliance he extracts from the humdrum round of home. Brantley is a wordsmith.

As he speaks he bends a bit closer to me, as if discovering a true design. He feels older than he is. In fact, my granddaughter just asked me if he is Valentina’s father. I do understand what she means. It’s not his looks. It is a subtle weight that he carries, the weight of words, of a scribe.

I have this coat I adore, he says. It’s a gift from my father-in-law.

Vieni qui, he said, winking with his hand, downwards, as only Italians do. He was as tall as I am. He laid his elegant black coat over my shoulder. It is yours. Il capotto ora é tuo, he said.

That gesture, so small, so big. I was the son he did not have. He was a father to me.

We drove through Rome. He would stop. You know, he was a priest until he met Valentina’s mother, Giuseppina.

Priests should marry. They should be allowed to. So we drove in Rome. He would stop for a beggar. He bent down to her and tied her shoe. Then he kissed her forehead. It had magnitude in its ordinariness. I wear his clothes.

You can read in Brantley’s face. It exists in fragments of what he feels.

The fragments of what we feel.

A photoshoot. A young man arrives at my place in New York. A bit hesitant toward the new, reserved, unsure what to expect. Later he reveals that he feels sick from the Cuban food of the night before.

Somehow he feels like a relative.

Everybody has arrived. I am dressed and undressed, photographed and filmed. It is about the jewelry I am wearing. Casa Reale. There is a mute watchman attached to the precious boxes of jewels. No one would mug him. He looks too ordinary.You cannot even make out his profession.

The cinematic photographer - Trent is his name - is so very polite. Please, again, he says to me.

At the end is a flurry of Q & A, questions in quick succession. Before we all part, I make Trent one more camomile tea. Then the counting of the jewels. Then everybody leaves. The door is shut. Click.

The afternoon promises to pass quickly. I am moving chairs back in place. I empty coffee cups. The sky descends slowly into evening. The night is in preparation. I am hungry.

Outside the lights are illuminating shop windows. The cafe, Mac, and Kiehl’s, “since 1851”. No turning back the night with its promises. No variation. It is too ancient.

While I am strolling towards the small restaurant, to eat a solitary meal, a young girl asks me whether I could give her the money for a subway ride. My hand feels for my portmonnaie.

Oh, I forgot it at home. I ask her to wait for me. It will only take me five minutes. I am glad her small begging gesture, so close to my home, saved me from some embarrassment later at the restaurant.

On the way home, after I have eaten, I think about yesterday, the Sunday of Easter, at my farm. The yearly return of a celebration, a tradition we started thirty years ago. There are teenagers now we knew as newborns. Within the frame of events there are gestures of surprises. Details get altered. A wonderment of unexpectedness. A forgotten face, with a bouquet of tulips, enters the kitchen. Anna makes a dress for the occasion. She trails off into the maze like a peacock. Some parts alter the past to enter the future. Badinage. Please, more playful banter.

The significance of an event, like that day. It rings in spring. There is the true Easter tradition. And I will always receive the stroke of the unexpected. Tradition is a custodian with its own allurement of surprises.

I fall into bed. By five in the morning I have conquered exhaustion. I reach for my iPhone, check on what I missed. And there is a thank-you: after your interview I thought it might delight you.

A small film, Trent’s life as a boy. The significant role his father played: you should be afraid, you will need it later, he said to the kid, ending way up high on a ladder.

My iPhone is too ridiculously small to fathom the depth of the story. His words come and go, a stream of sound, melancholy and precise...inconceivable magnitude...8/6/1944...Eighteen billion years ago, time was born...we are born out of this world...mythology of birth, man in space...you move in infinite directions, and where you are now, there are no edges, only curves...blood, the island of a femur...I saw your mannerisms in your grandson. Just now I heard your voice. It came from me.

His face, like a Dürer drawing.

I am bewildered and mesmerized. I want to see it on a large screen.

This small gesture.

Coffee House

The egotism of times past forbade the mental symphony of today’s hive mind

There is an invisible explosion, a mutual invitation to work together. Two heads have always been better than one.

I am in Venice, at Cafe Florian. The oldest continually open coffeehouse in the world, since 1720.

My youngest son’s wedding wish was that we, his family, closest relatives, and friends, spend three weeks in Venice, for his honeymoon.

The hotel had a garden, and there was a motorboat we could use to run to the Lido for a swim. There Cafe Florian invited us to meet daily. Just to hang out together, or to play tourist.

When I am in Venice I feel like a Venetian citizen, from all previous centuries simultaneously. We have come to this city at every time of year, including Carnival, and woken up at Palazzo Bragadin, in the room that sheltered Casanova when he fled prison.

My costumes have long trains of silk and lace. The streets covered with confetti, then swept clean in the morning. I stride through the large north portal built by Napoleon, down some steps, out into the open Piazza San Marco. Above me, the square of sky, virgin blue. The marble I am treading on polished by centuries of conflict.

And there it is, to my right: Cafe Florian, our place. At Carnival, we would always congregate at the cafe. Vittorio, with a blue glass eye, would sweep through the rooms on his way, followed by Casanova, black leather mask and all. A pouch for his penis, to look for prey.

The rooms are small, made for a whisper. They have names, like a relative. Sala Chinese, Sala Degli Specchi, people whispering secrets. You look out from the rooms to the piazza, and into the salas from the arcades, where the movies of the day are playing. The stories of imprisonment, of the smallness of thought. The acrobats of life file past. Genuine desperation. Faces like facades bathed in sunshine, spilled coins while you drink from a fine cup with saucer, thin like tulip petals.

The spectacle of the Florian has a large cast of exquisite ghosts. Napoleon bent over the design of the palace he built across from the Chiesa San Marco, his insignias everywhere, to be removed immediately upon his departure. Giovanni Agnelli eyed the decollete of Sophia Loren. Silvana Mangano, filming Death in Venice, contemplated her age. Mussolini met with the archbishop to discuss the problem of Hitler. At Aqua Alta, people rested their feet, tired from teetering across flooded piazzas on narrow planks.

In Vienna it is the Sacher. The history of Austria, the dark and the luminous, every vanished past, lives on along its walls. The cheap look of new events, tragedies, the lament of the ordinary.

The cafes of Europe are like grand courtesans. Smoke used to float above people’s plans. The bitterness of a divorce, the triumph of a discovery. Yes, the Secession, and the Bauhaus, created by thinkers and aesthetes alike, were airlifted from the cafes. Schools and movements. The aching beauty of love, born on a sofa in a corner of a coffeehouse. The innocence of hanging out after school, sipping hot chocolate, peering through flawed glass panes into the bitter cold of a dark afternoon.

Cafes invite group thinking.

When we arrived in New York in the 70s, it was denuded of cafes. My imagination panicked. Where does one meet friends, just to chat, to assemble in ordinariness, or to sit in Sunday silence with the paper? I was so used to it all that its absence was an ominous vacuum, almost not believable. The faded walls of used-up decor, the soft sofas dressed in aging cloth, cozy, gemu╠łtlich.

To enter a cafe like a casual queen, all eyes falling onto the new New. Oh, the arguments, the fights I have had in cafes. And yes, I fell in love once in a cafe.

And now, what to make of the hot summer streets in New York, without umbrellas of questionable shade but comfortably familiar. The air- conditioned dining joints could not satisfy the many fragments of my desire. The legendary cafes of my past felt like the ringing of church bells. I could only see it in the light of despair.

But then Starbucks happened. It happened everywhere in the city at once. And on a calm morning, the joy of discovery. I could see my longing fulfilled. A small cafe had opened close by our home.

The dawn of a street culture, outdoors, indoors, cafes everywhere. It became chic to sweat a bit. Newspapers unfolded, the past changed to afford the future. My more distant cultural past had penetrated, yes, transformed the received idea that diners could be properly hosted only in a Frigidaire.

I can hardly bear the thought of the past, the spirit of the possible. You choose. Now these new places of leisure let it all happen. The serious tone of an office meeting trails along the barricades of possibility. The remains of croissants lie littered between folders. Cell phones square the baroque landscape of a feast enjoyed. Philosophers eye one another. Notes immediately disappear into computers, like diamonds. The discovery of truth. The waiters are young boys. Reading the cards. The perpetual coming and going of hurried guests, like swallows.

At any time of day the cafe is the room for you. Abandon the cold street for the sake of myriad possibilities, and discover the true design, the face without a mask, the flawless heart, family of man.

The internet cafe is an anomaly. An anti-cafe, really, where you exchange your thoughts with your Apple robot. But the word cafe hangs from its tail! I go inside, walk past the neon-faced, sit down in comfort, and attack my iPhone for enlightenment.