“What’s it to be: pee or poo?” the young father asked his son in the gents’ of a Tribeca bar early on Saturday evening. There was no reply, but a few seconds later a two-foot-high boy stood next to me at the china urinals, propped up by his kneeling father. “Hello!” the boy said to me, looking up. “Hello,” I replied, looking a long way down. “You mustn’t talk to people here,” the father reproached his son. “It’s a breach of social etiquette.”
Earlier on Saturday, I had lunch with an Anglo-American woman, who edited a magazine in Paris in the ‘50s and who gives speeches for a living, lecturing on French painting at museums across the United States. She chose a restaurant in the East mid-70s, and I walked there, setting off soon after noon from Morningside Heights, where I live. On Broadway, in the high 90s, a cinema was showing two movies, though the billings on the neon street-sign read as one: Harry Potter The Day After Tomorrow. A minor kitchen fire at a restaurant on Amsterdam and 95th—firemen swarming on the sidewalk; the lozenge-red lights on the fire trucks winking; the vehicles, designed, so I’ve always thought, for the child’s eye, looking as if they had rushed from a candy store.
I read Colm Tóibín’s brilliant novel about Henry James, The Master, a week ago, and as I walked across Central Park’s Great Lawn, packed with sunbathers and ball catchers, and down Cedar Hill, south of the Metropolitan Museum, people lying on the unshaded grass or sitting on benches beneath trees, I was reminded of James’ promenade through the park in The American Scene, where he saw what he said was the best of New York, the best of the American scene. “The number of people in circulation was enormous—so great that the question of how they had got there, from their distances, and would get away again, in the so formidable public conveyances, loomed in the background, rather like a skeleton at a feast; but the general note was thereby, intensely, the ‘popular,’ and the brilliancy of the show proportionately striking.” Far away is less far away than it was in James’ day, as the airplanes flying north to La Guardia in the skies to the west of Central Park endlessly remind one, but the park is intensely popular. The best of New York; the best of the American scene? I don’t know, but I imagine more languages are spoken in Central Park today than 100 years ago.
At lunch, the woman who had invited me out talked about Lucian Freud, whom she’d visited in London this spring. The painter greeted her at his front door with a bottle of champagne. Max Beerbohm, the English wit, said of himself that he was a man who always said goodbye to guests at the front door; now there’s also Freud’s way to emulate. I’ve often heard people say of Freud’s paintings that they’re extremely interested by his work, then issue a by-the-way caveat: that they don’t like Freud’s painting, which means, I suppose, they couldn’t live with a Freud nude or portrait, its presence too formidable: the pubic hair or the flesh or the expressions on his subjects’ faces, the shit browns and meaty reds of Freud’s palate a bit too much of a conversation-killer when you’ve got guests over—even if you have greeted them with champagne. As if anyone were asking you to live with a Freud. In May, Freud exhibited his recent pictures at a New York gallery, including a portrait of a former army officer, Andrew Parker-Bowles, sitting cross-legged in the tunic of a cavalry brigadier—jacket unbuttoned, face worn, the expression at once puzzled and pissed-off. Last week, at a book party, a former gallery-owner I met said that he thought this portrait was about the end of England, or the end of empire. That’s not right: Freud’s pictures are never attempts at national narrative. Parker-Bowles (brother of the famous Camilla) appears to have returned from a ceremonial occasion he didn’t much want to attend but was obliged to go to out of duty, a duty he perhaps resents.
After lunch, a very good lunch, we walked to an exhibition of John Constable’s skyscapes at the Solander-O’Reilly gallery a few blocks north. There’s a sliver of sea or a shaft of land in a couple of these Constables, but in the majority landscape is absent, although the clouds and colors, familiar to anyone who knows eastern England, describe the land in its absence—just as Willem de Kooning’s landscapes (some on show at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, in a thin centennial exhibition to commemorate this painter’s birth), in their abstract way, are reminiscent of Long Island’s east end.
Constable is associated with Suffolk: Many of his landscapes are set near the east coast of this English county, a county where I spent many childhood holidays and weekends. My mother, herself a painter of portraits and landscapes, has a house not far from the sea. And it was coastal Suffolk where James tried to find a home, interested as he was in Dunwich, the Suffolk port that disappeared beneath the waves of the forever-encroaching North Sea centuries ago. “I defy anyone,” James writes in English Hours, “at desolate Dunwich, to be disappointed in anything. A month of the place is a real education to the patient inner vision. … Dunwich is not even the ghost of its dead self: almost all you can say of it is that it consists of the mere letters of its old name. … There is a presence in what is missing.”
Dunwich is far from unique: Other Suffolk settlements have vanished. In certain Suffolk fields, you see the shadow of lost villages, the inhabitants killed by the bubonic plague in the late 14th century. Several 20th-century Suffolk towns have also disappeared; these served as bases for the U.S. Air Force in the Cold War and were dismantled in the early ‘90s when they, and the servicemen stationed there, became obsolete. When I was a child, there were maybe as many as 30,000 Americans in eastern Suffolk. U.S. low-flying fighter-bombers ripped the same skies painted by Constable; massive Cadillacs and Pontiacs crowded the narrow lanes. Some American cars ended up in the hands of young Suffolk men, who painted them the colors of cars seen in ‘70s American television series—Starsky & Hutch, but especially The Dukes of Hazzard. The troops have gone, the cars have gone; only the long runways, now crumbling, remain. If you’re searching for an American presence in Suffolk today, you’re likely to be reminded that many of the Protestants on board the Mayflower left this county—with its melancholy landscape, its gnarled trees and scrappy fields, its open, often overcast sky—to make a city on a hill in bright Massachusetts.
Later on Saturday, at a party in a loft on Franklin Street for an Italian painter, a Colombian who made a film with a brilliant title, Rita Goes to the Supermarket, talked about her surname and how she disliked it because it reminded her of her father. It was suggested she could always change it. “I know. I talk to my shrink about this all the time,” she said. When I was about to leave, I was introduced to an Austrian who told me her first name is Finnish and, when translated into English, means “I am.” “Are you?” I said, “I sometimes abbreviate my name to I-go.” Which isn’t true, but I was leaving, not because I was late for anything but because it seemed to me about time to go. I walked down the long wooden staircase to the street, and caught the subway heading north.