THIS MONTH has been so hard. The temperature hovers around 0 degrees Celsius. Every day brings a new thaw and then a new freeze. You wake up and everything is either black and wet or white and ice. Weird energies are swirling around everything, both me and the world. The conflict in Ukraine continues, and my own inner peace is evasive. I have written 10 chapters of a new book though, 10 chapters in 17 days. The creative impulse is undaunted, but my soul, my soul is restless and unhappy. I ended ’22 full of hope and bliss, and have since dropped down to the bottom of low. It will take weeks or months to recover from this. Maybe I never will. My grandmother once told me, “Justin, this life is tough, and you have to learn to roll with the punches.” But I am getting tired of the punches and just want to roll. I will try to keep my eye out for some shred of sunlit optimism, but right now, things look bleak. Black and wet, or white and ice. Such is the end of January.
I NEED SO LITTLE from the world these days. My heart is reformed and realigned, so fat, plump, warm, and content. What a funny solstice, everything turns, everything is now like this. This is how it works. It comes into you and remakes you over. For just a few shimmering moments on the solstice night, she was the most beautiful person anywhere, who may have ever existed, and maybe even the most beautiful phenomenon in existence. If there were stars in the sky, then she was the brightest and most flaming of them, and if planets could be seen by the naked eye, then hers was the most incandescent. Of course, this phenomenon of love merits study. Love is warm, pulsating. It is not stagnant. Love wants to move, love wants to flow, love goes with the currents. Love is natural and as alive as nature. But what do we do with love, this phenomenon that requires nothing to be done to it? We try to contain it, define it with words and ideas, crank out paperwork and bureaucracy. We forge it into golden and silver rings. We try to make serendipitous and bizarre things out of love, sculptures and buildings. What comes of it? Does love seep into the upholstery? Can you spray yourself with it, like a fine perfume? Does it even deserve a word or words, ideas, concepts, shapes and galleries? Music boxes with a spinning ballerina, fixed in place, that you can take out from time to time and watch and observe? Wax figures on a frosted cake? I could just sweep this all away like chimney ash and reduce it to nothingness, but there is something here. There’s no more reason to talk about it though, this pure and undulating thing. It requires no words. Nothing needs to be done to it or for it. Love fulfils itself. Sometimes though when I see something or hear something, I am reminded of love. I recognize that it exists, just like that red planet in the sky, or those transmitting stars or you, sitting there quietly in a corner. It exists and it emits. I would rather just let it be and breathe, sit and incubate inside of me. I know it will hurt one day, if it is taken away. But we all know that good love never really leaves you. No, never. Good love never leaves. It lingers.
PHIL GROIA WAS MAYBE the best teacher I ever had. He was an expert on 1950s doowop and knew a lot of blues players, like John Lee Hooker and Taj Mahal. He taught 9th grade social studies. I remember how we watched the film Gandhi in class, which is over three hours long. A student complained and Groia shot back, ‘Why don’t we watch a three-hour film about your life? I’m sure it would be more interesting!’ A young Groia was on the way to school in 1947 when he heard on the news that Gandhi had been assassinated. The last time I saw Groia was in Port Jefferson around the year 2000. He was complaining about getting harassed by Giuliani’s NYPD, and had befriended a much, much younger woman he met on the train. “I didn’t know how old she was!” he told me. Man, you were larger than life!
He passed away in 2014.
Groia had a longstanding misunderstanding with another teacher, who, incidentally, also did not like me very much. One day Groia took me aside and said, “Don’t listen to him. He’s not even a conservative Republican. He’s to the right of fascist.” This was probably how I was sorted into the left wing. I could have become another fascist, easily, but Groia intervened, like a liberal guardian angel.
Groia also liked to talk about his childhood in the 1940s and 1950s. He was born circa 1940 himself. Back then, in the Truman era, they would get small milk containers (you know the kind, in tiny cartons, the standard containers you get in public school) with their meals. But Groia and his classmates would weaponize the milk and launch the containers over the fence at other unsuspecting classmates at recess. They made good milk bombs, he said.
Because of his interest in doowop, Groia was at times invited to high profile events. He was the author of, “They All Sang on the Corner: A Second Look at New York City’s Rhythm and Blues Vocal Groups” (1983). He described being basically the only white person at one event, where he was seated next to Public Enemy’s Chuck D. Supposedly, he and Chuck D got on quite well. I wish I had been there.
After the ridiculous excesses of the 1980s, the ’90s were a time of sobriety and/or dark drugs, nihilism, and serious dudes wearing black clothing. Dayglo, hair metal, Lacoste, and acid wash were out, black turtlenecks and The X-Files were in. Groia would wear a black turtleneck and sit at the head of the room with his coffee cup talking about Gandhi. He no doubt drank his coffee black, as he was such a serious dude. The inscription on the cup read, “No More Mr. Nice Guy.”
I HAVE BEEN PUBLICLY SHAMED for writing about my ancestry by numerous people, but I decided to write one more post. This post is called “One-Eighth Canadian.” It so happened that years ago in New York, I was out drinking with my friend Patrick O’Connor and a couple of floozies at the bar inquired if I happened to be the prime minister of Canada. I told them no, but explained that there is a reason that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and I look alike: we both have Canadian blood.
The Canadian blood in me runs thick, sweet, and deep, like freshly tapped maple syrup. Long ago during the inter-Anglo conurbation referred to by Americans as the Revolutionary War, some of my predecessors chose the wrong side and decided to make haste for the wilds of Canada, leaving behind New York for good, or so they thought. They made their home on the shores of Lake Ontario where for several generations, I imagine, they were quite cold. They were joined there by Irish from Ulster and English from County Durham and the West Country. They had boring English-sounding names and were Methodists, I think. While not attractive, they still had plenty of sex.
Many children were made.
Then, in the later years of the 19th century, a roving moulder or foundry worker named Frank, married the daughter of a machinist in Detroit. Her name was Annabelle. They had only daughters and one son and for whatever reason relocated to the Hochelaga district in Montreal around the year 1900. Here they briefly changed the family name to “Millar” and then back to “Menagh.” As most of the documents from that time are in French, I thought they were all chefs, but it turned out that “chef” just meant “head of household” up in Québec.
Arl was one of the daughters. She married a fellow named Sinclair but then was divorced “pour cause d’adultère” in around the year 1910. Alphonse was the son. He held various odd jobs. In 1911, he was a “colleur,” whatever that means (internet search engines translate it as both “billposter” and “examiner”). He had also recently married a sharpshooter from a Wild West show named Lucy, who was actually from New York. She had pearl-handled pistols. This detail remains.
They had two sons and relocated to New York by the year 1920, for sure. But then Lucy died in the flu epidemic. Her sister Genevieve married the Canadian, and had five more children, one of whom was my grandmother, also called Annabelle. She’s the one who married the Italian, Abbatecola, who lived in the same community in Queens. And so the Canadian blood was diluted, first by New York Irish, and then by first-generation Italians. But the maple still runs strong. There is an affinity there, an unbreakable bond, a fondness for red things with leaves embroidered on them and silly hats. As an old Québécois once told me over croissants, if a person has a drop of Canadian blood in them, just a drop, then that person is a Canadian. Who am I to argue?
IT’S A GRAY DAY IN TOWN today, and I still haven’t ordered firewood for the winter. I keep waiting for the price to drop, but there is no drop in sight, and so I wait and put it off, as I do with most things. At an intersection, I paused to watch a half-torn paper bag float down the sidewalk in the wind, along with some rustling red leaves. There is an old house there that hasn’t been renovated, a grand 19th century ruin, and someone has spray painted an image of a man screaming on it.
On Sunday, I was in Treimani down on the southwest coast for a friend’s birthday. We went into the forest, and he brought along a friend who knows about forestry and what the names of the trees are and how to manage them. Treimani is a peaceful place, and I like that nearby there is a village called Metsapoole, “into the woods,” because I can think of no better name for a village, or the circumstances of my life. We learned about ash trees, and there were a few baby spruces we were urged not to step on. My friend recently inherited his farm, and when we went there, relatives turned up and gave him buckets of potatoes. My friend is different from me; he still lives with his family. In the field there in Treimani, there are mushrooms as big as saucers.
Recently, I had something like a panic attack. I did not know what to call it, because I was never taught words for these things. This is actually a problem for men, naming our feelings. We certainly feel things, we just were never taught what they were. This is why the default emotion shown by men is typically anger. This feeling though I have decided to describe as a panic attack. First, there is a wave of energy that makes it hard to focus on anything else. It can happen after being reminded of something or seeing someone you’d rather not wish to see. There you are, trying to write, and it just appears in the distance, a storm of bad feelings, then swoops in with lightning. I try to ignore it, but to manage them, I go home, lie in bed, and caress myself, rubbing my arms, and saying soothing things. I talk to myself — it’s almost like another person is speaking to me. Then I say, “Don’t worry, this will pass. Of course it will! You’ll get through this, you always do.”
For whatever reason, thinking of Wes Anderson films helps me to survive these situations. I like to think of Isle of Dogs and Rushmore, I like to think of Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch. Sometimes I think that I am just one of these characters from one of his films. My life is just a film, and so I don’t need to worry about what happens in the film and should rather enjoy it as an observer. I think of Federico Fellini movies too, like 8 1/2. That one is my favorite. The main character might as well be me, lost in fantasy, memory, reality.
Flying up in the air.
In a world shaped by external circumstances, in which there are few certainties, and role models are hard to come by, any kind of help I can get is therefore appreciated. One day, I came across an old article about the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who underwent a special procedure at the age of 69 that reinvigorated his sexual appetite, and he spent the rest of his days bedding young radical poets and journalists. His erotic adventures fed his creative output and he died happier, if not a truly happy man. Something about this story helped me to imagine a future in which I was not a dispossessed soul at the whims of panic but one who could enjoy life. Maybe there was another way, the way of Yeats, the way of the debauched and lascivious Irish poets. History might remember them as bastards, but to survive in this cold, cruel and windy world, one has to be a bit of a bastard it seems.
An Estonian version of this column appears in the November 2022 issue of the magazine Anne ja Stiil.
WHAT I REMEMBER about Bari Centrale is the tall palm trees outside, even in November, and the graffitied frescoes of the saints on the walls outside the tall apartment houses. I remember the carabinieri milling about outside the doors, and that smell, that awful beautiful smell of life and filth that is everywhere with you when you go to Italy, and I remember the girls with the black hair and black jackets. I remember the fresh fruit markets, where they sell juicy persimmons, and the roast chestnut sellers. Bari is just one port city, and nobody really goes there on purpose. Italy for outsiders is Rome, Milan, Florence, Naples, maybe Palermo. Italy is the blue grotto, Italy is checkered tablecloths, and the singing gondoliere of Venice and famous nude statues. Bari is on nobody’s list. But I have to go to Bari, because Bari is where my cousins live. I cannot go to Italy and not go to Bari. Sometimes I take the train all the way from Rome to get to Bari. Sometimes I fly. In the airport, you can buy mafalda and red wine. For me, it’s like home.
This is the food I grew up eating, these are the manners I learned from my elders. When someone says the party starts at 2 pm, that means it really starts at 4 pm. When someone says goodbye, they don’t mean it. For Italians, or at least southern Italians, saying goodbye is a lengthy process. It can take an hour for the goodbye to fulfil itself. I forget these things when I am away, but it always comes back to me here. Once an Estonian girl complained to me that she could never live in such a place. “All they do is sit around and eat and do nothing and nothing happens,” she said. I thought, what’s wrong with that? That sounds like the ideal way to live. That sounds perfect.
But what to eat? In the evenings in Bari, you can hear the fishermen in the ports calling out their daily catch. Customers huddle around and go home with some dead fish. Some of the fishermen play cards while they are waiting for clients. In the cafes in the evening, you can buy anything, so long as it is dripping in marinara sauce and stuffed with cheese. In one cafe, you can even buy baked octopus, and see the tentacles emerging from a mountain of sauce, cheese, and pasta. I think at some point, you just have to stop worrying about what you are eating in Puglia. You just have to eat it. There are the small mozzarellinis, and then the large loaves of mozzarella. There are the small cubes of polenta baked in sauce, and then a custard-filled pastry that my cousin Michele calls sporcamuss, “because it makes your mouth all messy.” The dialect around Bari has Greek, French, and even Arabic influences. Phrases and words you learn in Puglia are totally useless outside of Puglia. If you try to speak Barese to someone in Rome, they will blink at you. Younger people speak Italian, but the older people here retreat into dialetto at the kitchen table. This is one reason why Italians in New York and other places switched to English so quickly. They could not understand each other’s dialects.
Down the coast from Bari, there are some real gems and pearls hidden in the coastline. Places that time forgot. Places like Polignano a Mare and Monopoli. Ostuni, the white city. Boats sleep in the harbors. Castles bear witness to the waves and winds of the sea. On the other side of the water is Albania, Greece. Sometimes ships go there. Here you are free to wander. Here you are free from the noise of the world. Here there is always something good to eat and people wave to you from balconies. Here the old men stand around eating gelato, sipping espresso, with their hands in their pockets. Somewhere the tricolore is fluttering above. Whenever I am down there, I always think, this is the place. This is the place that made us. This is where we all came from.
FOR A BIG PART of my life, this was the woman against whom all other women were measured. Others perhaps wanted the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition cover girl, on the back of a motorbike, with a case of beer, I wanted this one. I wanted someone explosive and a little grotesque (which invites the remark, be careful of what you wish for, no additional comment needed). I was actually in a room with her in New York, but was too nervous to approach her, but could not help but think, “What’s a nice Icelandic girl like you doing in a place like this?” The new album is really a treasure, like a cache of pirate’s booty, hidden in the back of a wet cave (let’s see how deep we can go with these metaphors). Something genuinely needed these days. Thanks.
YESTERDAY, the Tartu shopping center scene. Tartu is the epicenter of south Estonian shopping. When I arrived to this second largest city in the distant year of ’03, the bus station was a mottled parking lot, the “big department store” looked like one of those makeshift research stations at the South Pole, and they were unearthing the land that would eventually host the new “big department store” across the street. The gaping muddy wound in the earth revealed ancient wooden structures that I am sure were thoroughly sampled and photographed. That was always a fun part about Tartu, no matter where you dug, you were bound to unearth a skeleton or two. Now all of this territory has been submerged in capitalistic wonderland of massive billboards showing taciturn models (the square-jawed Viking, the vacant-eyed maiden) in Baltic bling. There is Tasku, Kvartal, and the now “old” Tartu Kaubamaja (Kvartal, the large shopping complex, now sits on top of the area of the “old big department store”). When I am in the new department stores, I feel utterly poor. Where are my shiny new shoes? Why aren’t my pants as nice as those ones? Maybe I should work more with my hair? Perhaps it’s time to buy a car I cannot afford and get a mortgage on a home I cannot afford either? Maybe the beatnik life is not the life. Maybe it’s time to sell out? Who needs poetry when you can binge watch it? If you don’t get paid to do it, then why do anything? Isn’t that what life is, a big commercial, a giant dangling billboard showcasing the sweetluck apparel of the northern high life? And how come, no matter how hard I try, nature wants me to look like a Greek fisherman? I could straighten everything out, but tomorrow I will be just as messy as the day before. It’s been bothering me when I go out recently. I am the oldest person there. Where are all the other people my age? At home? Watching TV? What do they do with themselves at 9 pm? Beats me. Being in Tartu, this university town, one can’t but help but feel ancient. The median age is about 22. I kind of like being around all of those 22 year olds. It’s not even about eyeballing pretty youth, it’s just that, they didn’t live through most of the forgettable things I did. NSync? Who was that? Bill Clinton? Never heard of him. Webster? Didn’t he write the dictionary? They never had to see what happened to the cast of Diff’rent Strokes, and have never heard of Todd Bridges. If they ever heard of 2 Live Crew, it was because of TikTok. Maybe that’s a good idea. Let’s just wipe the last 40 years or so from memory and start over. Sure, a pandemic and war, but, we’re just getting started anyway. Surely things will get better. Everything is new again, shiny, sparkling and new. It’s a new dawn.
SOMETIMES PEOPLE VANISH from your life. People you are close to. People you thought you knew. People you thought knew you. People you trusted. People whom you thought trusted you. People with whom you shared vivid memories. But then, one day, they went away. They did not die. They just erased themselves from your life. They had good reasons, but at one point you looked over, and all you saw was an empty chair. These people are not dead but have become ghosts. It’s a strange phenomenon, how the living can turn themselves into phantoms. Vague and amorphous. Almost tangible. We actually always talk of the dead. We remember the dead. But when a person becomes a ghost, it’s not just as if they don’t exist, it’s as if they never existed, so there is no need to speak of them, and even if you do, it’s as if you are talking to a wall. What difference does it make? They are no longer there. This creates havoc in your mind and memory. You begin to question if they ever existed, or if they were just imaginary. You begin to suspect that you have become like that troubled mathematician in A Beautiful Mind. At some point, you just have to shed them from your own memories, like yesterday’s clothes. You take them off, and they are there lying coiled on the floor. Not only are they gone from your life, but you are no longer you anymore. You have to become someone else. You have to rewrite your story. It’s like one of those dried up distributaries in the Nile River Delta. It used to be there, but it’s gone. Where there was once water, there is now just yellow sand.