The thing about Boca Raton

Within the subdivisions named for species of trees, there are the gates and the guards, the houses that are architectural siblings sired by the same developer, their backyards sprawling golf courses, the landscape scraped from the skin of a dollar bill, trimmed hedges, miles of mowed grass, the only pedestrians the roving ethnic laborers who maintain it all, not a single speck of litter on the smooth, pristine roads, only the fleets of golf carts, all the pretty flowers, the big palm trees, all that and the residents still live in the mouth of a rat.

where no one saw them

“I remember, said Austerlitz, how Alphonso once told his great-nephew and me that everything was fading before our eyes, and that many of the loveliest of colours had already disappeared, or existed only where no one saw them, in the submarine gardens fathoms deep below the surface of the sea.”

— W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

porcupines in the cold

“On a cold winter’s day, a group of porcupines huddled together to stay warm and keep from freezing. But soon they felt one another’s quills and moved apart. When the need for warmth brought them closer together again, their quills again forced them apart. They were driven back and forth at the mercy of their discomforts until they found the distance from one another that provided both a maximum of warmth and a minimum of pain.”
—Arthur Schopenhauer

love affairs

“The thing to remember about love affairs,” says Simone, “is that they are all like having raccoons in your chimney.”

“Oh, not the raccoon story,” groans Cal.

“Yes! The raccoons!” cries Eugene.

“We have raccoons sometimes in our chimney,” explains Simone.

“Hmmm,” I say, not surprised.

“And once we tried to smoke them out. We lit a fire, knowing they were there, but we hoped that the smoke would cause them to scurry out the top and never come back. Instead, they caught on fire and came crashing down into our living room, all charred and in flames and running madly around until they dropped dead.” Simone swallows some wine. “Love affairs are like that,” she says. “They all are like that.”

—Lorrie Moore, Like Life

writer’s life

“‘It isn’t the drunkard who writes the drinking song.’ He knew that. On the other hand, it isn’t the teetotaler either. He put it best, perhaps, when he said that the writer must wade into life as into the sea, but only up to the navel.”

— Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot

the unknown slopes

“We heard the story of Jose Ramirez, or fragments of it; my friend thought it was wonderful, and, after a moment of puzzlement, so did I, though later, as we approached the unknown slopes of the night, to quote Poe, the story began to blur, as if the Indian boy’s words could find nowhere to settle in our memories, which must be why I can hardly remember a thing he said.”

— Roberto Bolaño, Last Evenings on Earth

roman a clef

“[Harper Lee] once explained to Oprah Winfrey, over lunch in a private suite at the Four Seasons, why she’d never appear on her show: Everyone compares her to Scout, the sweetly pugnacious tomboy who narrates Mockingbird. But as she told Oprah, ‘I’m really Boo’ — Boo Radley, the young recluse in the creepy house who winds up saving the day.”

— Boris Kachka, Vulture

party trick

“I have often noticed that these things, which obsess me, neither bother nor impress other people even slightly. I am horribly apt to approach some innocent at a gathering and, like the ancient mariner, fix him with a wild, glittering eye and say, ‘Do you know that in the head of the caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth there are two hundred twenty-eight separate muscles?’ The poor wretch flees. I am not making chatter; I mean to change his life. I seem to possess an organ that others lack, a sort of trivia machine.”

—Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

theory of jet lag

“She knows, now, absolutely, hearing the white noise that is London, that Damien’s theory of jet lag is correct: that her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can’t move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.”

— William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

Somewhere Under Manhattan

A homeless man is asking for money on the N train.

At second glance, he’s selling spinning tops — they remind me of Cobb’s totem from Inception, enlarged toy versions. In the movie, if the totem stops spinning, it means this world is the real one.

The man walks past us to one end of the temporary subway stage and releases a spinner, walks to the other end and flings a second. He stands between them while they spin and spin. No one bites. The colors are electronically illuminated, and at such high speeds, they seem almost spectral — whirring approximations of red and green.

I bite.

“Green,” I say, as he digs into his bag. “Actually, yellow.”

“Yellow is the rarest color in nature,” I explain. “That’s why movie subtitles are usually yellow, because they stand out.”

I pay him the small fee and then we talk as the train rattles through its dark tunnel, the portholes providing little to view. He alludes to the announcement sometimes emitted by the loudspeaker, asking us to please not give. He wants everyone to know that he’s a salesman, not a beggar.

The spinners are still spinning. They show no sign of stopping, but they must have stopped because this happened the other day.

“If you can’t make it here,” he said to me, “you can’t make it nowhere.”