Jetting, A Tale of the Upper West Side, Part III

Saturday at noon, Lucy was late, and I waited in the unsympathetic company of Lajos Kossuth for her to show up. The usual resentment began to build up in my oft-stood-up heart; but I was pleased to note another advantage of jetting: It mitigated the risk of being bailed on, for even the most unreliable date had a financial incentive to show up. Sure enough, I soon espied Lucy crossing Riverside and waving at me.

She was not wearing her purple tights (I’d have to take that up with Ephraim) but had pulled on some kind of shiny black trousers. Black also was her moleskin jacket, but at least it wasn’t leather. She sported a Greek fisherman’s cap (oh God, isn’t that what Julia Roberts wore in Pretty Woman?), and her hair was curlier than I remembered from the party. She wasn’t particularly ecstatic to see me, but her disposition was sunny, and she struck me as a friendly “girl next door” in a family-channel TV movie. Her slight nervousness was charming in flat-affect Manhattan, and it peaked when, soon after arriving, she asked for her hundred dollars.

Having paid her, I conducted her to a bench overlooking the Hudson, because, after all the negotiation and research I had put into our date, I really wanted to talk to her. She was a Columbia undergraduate (we grad students called them “undies”), now a senior, majoring in psychology. She hailed from St. Louis and returned home each summer to work at her dad’s veterinary practice. She was going to head home for good in a few weeks, after graduation, and resume her customary off-season employment, before beginning a M.A./Ph.D. program in psych right there at Wash U. She would stay at her parents’ place and commute to school.

In my mind, I began to spin a narrative of how she’d bitten of more than she could chew in New York and now wished to retreat to a simpler place, but I was probably just projecting my own experience onto her. In fact, she proved rather unresponsive to my follow-up questions, as I fished for evidence of dissatisfaction – with New York, with men who weren’t me – which was how I sought to identify promising women in those days. Far from evincing any intriguing discontent, she betrayed a singular lack of profundity: It wasn’t that she avoided my attempts to steer the conversation into deeper water; she just wasn’t keen to go there – not with me, anyway, not for that first few minutes, as we sat watching the River.

Thinking that I could enliven our chat by asking “All right, so who the hell is Ephraim?” I was told only the basic facts about him, too. Ephraim had been her head resident during her freshman year, and they had remained friends ever since. He’d escorted her to a few parties over the years, and the role of jetting pimp was easy enough for him to fill, when the fashion caught on. I said something about how quickly she’d sent him over to me at the party and asked whether she always moved that fast, but the subject felt awkward, and she shied away from it.

I would have liked to go walking in the downtown direction through Riverside Park, but we began to notice crowds of people tromping north, and soon a parade began to move up Riverside Drive. Apparently, Grant’s Tomb was reopening after a months-long remodeling, and we had stumbled into the rededication ceremony. Lucy’s interest kindled, and I discovered that she was fond of history, even Civil War history. That sort of enthusiasm counted for a bit, I reckoned, even if it wasn’t quite as attractive to me as existential angst. We enjoyed the parade, and I suppose the experience was romantic, despite the lack of intimate conversation. The high point came when a group of reenactors marched by in black hats and Lucy and I simultaneously identified them as the Iron Brigade. Maybe another history geek would be the perfect girl for me, I thought.

After the parade, I suggested we go someplace for lunch, but she said she’d already eaten and had to study for an astronomy final. Having learned to keep expectations low, in dating and in everything else, I nodded the usual “I see.” I held out no hope for a return engagement, even, for our date, though not unpleasant, didn’t seem exciting enough to warrant one. I wished her luck on her test and was prepared to head off to lunch alone, when she suddenly grew coquettish and asked if I was busy the next Saturday. When I responded with a “What did you have in mind?” she cocked an eyebrow and said in a stage whisper, “Would a hundred bucks get me into your apartment?”

To be continued

Jetting, A Tale of the Upper West Side, Part II

I spent the intervening week trying to learn what jetting was. I only owned a Macintosh SE back then, and so I had to go to the Columbia campus to access the Internet on a school computer. Expecting my Yahoo searches to drag up a lot of sleaze, because prostitution, or at least the trappings of prostitution, seemed to be involved, I was surprised to see smiling, well-groomed, and apparently law-abiding faces on photos among the “jetting” search results. As I came to understand it, “jetting” was an ironic takeoff on “jet set,” a term from the seventies that had denoted the young nouveau riche, also known as “go-getters,” who were often pictured in magazines getting into their private jets or reclining on the decks of their yachts, with gorgeous smiles on their faces. The fact that the members of the jet set were usually shown cavorting in unmarried pairs introduced a sexual element to their joie de lucre, suggesting a unification of romance and materialism. The nineties term “jetting” was a comment on this mixing of love and money, presumably a mockery of it. It followed the American pattern of satire in that it advocated indulgence in something – the commodification of companionship, in this case – as a means of ridiculing it. (Think “Stupid Pet Tricks” on the David Letterman show.)

As I dug deeper, I discovered more about the New York jetting scene that, of course, had surrounded me all along without my being aware of it. The satirical meaning of jetting, I gathered, had over time given way to a social one: It was now used to formalize the dating process, to give it a little structure. Dating in New York had always been a high-stakes game, with success or failure, pleasure or pain, influenced by dozens of variables related to differences in personality and seriousness on the part of its players. Jealous of his (or her) time, the New Yorker worked as quickly as possible to gauge his compatibility with his opposite, determine the type of relationship that was most feasible, and decide if it was worth pursuing. It had always been very businesslike, in other words, and sentiment, as our New Yorker would say, only fucked things up. Live adult chat, speed dating, and, eventually, online dating were then becoming fashionable, each tending to heighten the sense that the individual lonely-heart was but one item on an ever-refreshing menu, like a roasted chicken going around on a rotisserie.

Jetting imposed order on this free-for-all. It established the principle of “pay-to-play,” disqualifying the unserious; and it added a layer of emotional protection, taking love out of the equation, leaving things “just business.” Moreover, it helped daters to rediscover their own value. By saying, “If you want to go out with me, you will have to put up some money,” the jetter refused to be cheapened. This last advantage struck me as especially poignant, for whereas prostitution commonly implied degradation, the simulated prostitution of jetting was actually designed to restore dignity.

Having grasped the generalities via my Internet research, I still needed to know how jetting worked in practice. I queried a few of my New York friends, and they informed me that the one hundred dollar price for a date was de rigueur. However, I would probably not have to forfeit the money permanently. Unless I proved to be an utter lout, my date, Lucy, could be expected to propose that she, in turn, engage my services on a subsequent occasion for the same one hundred dollars, effectively returning her original fee. This custom, I noted, relieved jetting of the opprobrium of sexism, because men and women ended up employing each other. It also guaranteed a second date, giving the parties more time to become acquainted or at least to feel less like the flower, quickly abandoned by the flitting butterfly.

On Friday, I withdrew a one hundred dollar bill from the old Republic National Bank on 96th Street. On Saturday, before noon, I headed to Riverside Park.

To be continued

Jetting, A Tale of the Upper West Side, Part I

I lived in New York for three years in the mid-90s and sucked at it. I just had no idea what the rules were.

One Saturday night, my friend Lori invited me to a party on West End Avenue and then blew me off to hang out with her ex-boyfriend down in the Village. Having no other plans, I decided to go to the party without her, even though I was unknown to the hosts.

Upon arrival, I noticed that in lieu of the usual vintage punk, some kind of spa music was playing on the stereo, which filled me with the hope that I would be able to converse with someone without shouting. Immediately, I focused on a girl with auburn hair and purple tights, who stood out from the other guests, all dressed in the obligatory black leather. I caught her looking at me too and thought I detected a familiar, searching vulnerability in her eyes. In spite of how often my instincts had led me astray in the big city, I surrendered to them one more time: Across the room I went.

“Hi, what’s your name?” I introduced myself. (New Yorkers are supposed to like directness, aren’t they?)

She said her name was Lucy, conjuring in my mind a replay of Charlie Brown charging upon the football. I began calculating the advisability of sharing this thought as an icebreaker, but as I did so, I broke off eye contact, which, at this early stage of the conversation, was a fatal mistake. Lucy promptly cast her own attention elsewhere and before five seconds had elapsed mumbled a “Glad to have met you” and retreated in the direction of the kitchen, where she commenced an enthusiastic dialogue with a tall young man wearing sunglasses.

I looked out the window for a minute or so, my no-big-deal smile becoming wooden until it hurt, and then I sat down on the sofa. Only a fresh start in conversation could have saved my spirits, but I was now too gun-shy to initiate one, and nobody came to rescue me. Soon I’d become the proverbial turd in a punchbowl.

I craved escape. I hadn’t lasted ten minutes, a new record.

Just as I was rising to leave, the sunglass guy came over and bade me to sit back down. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. Probably, he was Lucy’s boyfriend, come to warn me away from his girl. I considered dashing for the door but didn’t want to make a spectacle of myself. If he was going to chew me out, at least he would be discreet.

“I’m Ephraim,” he said, with his hand on my shoulder.

“Ah, Ephraim,” I answered, girding myself with sarcasm. “To what do I owe the pleasure? Don’t tell me: You’re Lucy’s boyfriend.”

Ephraim grinned. “Not really. I’m just looking out for her.” He was channeling every baddie from the movies.

“Well, you’re doing a fine job. One can’t be too careful these days. Lot of creeps around here.”

He grinned again. “But you like her, though, don’t you?”

I threw up my hands. “Yep, you got me, Ephraim. Guilty as charged.”

What’s it going to be, Ephraim? I thought. Just go ahead and say your piece, and then I can get out of here.

He kept toying with me, though. “She’s cute, isn’t she?”

I said nothing. I wasn’t going to play this game.

“Don’t be shy,” Ephraim drawled. “If you want something, all you need to do is ask.” He glanced left and right, before fixing his eyes on Lucy, still standing in the kitchen doorway. She smiled back, as if in anticipation.

“Well…” said Ephraim, intoning his voice upward, “For a hundred dollars, you can do whatever you want to her.”

“What!” I blurted. I exhaled in despair, with my hand to my forehead. A confused tornado of emotions and instincts churned inside me. Desire was a part of it. “Do whatever you want to her” was an arousing set of words; but it was a twisted set of words, enmeshing my desire in wretchedness. One of the worst things about living in New York, I later realized, was just this tendency for the simplest, most natural behavior to be viewed with suspicion, in the most uncharitable light. For instance, when leaving the city by rental car the previous summer, I’d spotted my classmate crossing the street and beeped my horn in greeting. She pretended she didn’t hear me. I beeped again. She ignored me. I beeped again. She ignored me again, by which time I felt like a dirty old man, harassing a pretty co-ed. Here at the party on West End, all I’d done was to say hi to a girl in purple tights, and next thing I know, I’m wenching. I hated the degradation, especially considering how pathetic I felt to begin with.

Now feeling more indignant than guilty, I would have been justified to leave in a huff, yet something changed in Ephraim’s expression, compelling me to wait a bit. He seemed to break character, as though I’d just flubbed my part in an onstage dialogue and he was signaling me with his eyes to get me back on track. As disconcerted as I was, I managed to observe that he didn’t look like a typical pimp. His spiked hair, stubble, sunglasses, and obligatory leather jacket could not conceal – indeed they advertised – his bourgeois background. I pegged him for a barista from Michigan (which is exactly what he turned out to be).

“Take it easy,” he said. “It’s just jetting.”

“It’s just what?”

A couple of tall young women, overhearing this exchange, turned in our direction with knowing smirks.

“Jetting,” Ephraim repeated, the sinister overtone now gone from his voice. “Don’t freak out. Just go with it,” he whispered. “If you want to see Lucy, you can.”

He cleared his throat.

“All you need is a hundred dollars. Bring it and hand it to her at the beginning of your date. Tell me the time and place, and I’ll arrange it.”

The word “date” calmed me down, somehow.

“Next Saturday at noon,” I said. “At the Kossuth statue in Riverside Park.”

“What do you want her to wear?”

The idea of ordering my date’s costume threatened to rekindle the feeling of degradation, but I bit the bullet.

“Purple tights,” I said.

To be continued

Book Review: The Queen’s Necklace, by Antal Szerb

It’s fitting how I’ve been putting off writing this review of The Queen’s Necklace, Antal Szerb’s last book; for Szerb, likewise, seemed to have been putting off finishing it. A lifelong Hungarian Catholic whose Jewish ancestry doomed him to underemployment and murder under Nazi occupation, Szerb passed up several opportunities to escape, preferring to share his people’s fate. With the final, fatal crisis approaching in 1943, Szerb sought refuge in the history of eighteenth-century France, dwelling on its most minute details, digressing and diverting along myriad tangents, as though contriving, like Scheherazade, never to reach the end. The Queen’s Necklace is Szerb’s valediction, how he wanted to go: not in bitterness but in erudite frivolity.

Pausing one last time, just before the close, Szerb makes the subtlest of allusions to creeping melancholy:

This age was as beautiful as the most finely worked lace, as a piece of Sèvres porcelain with its timeless charm and fragile delicacy; as the noble oozings of the Tokai grape, full and rich with sweetness; as the autumn air in Hungary, when the reddening leaves are scented with the inexpressible sweetness of death.

Not inexpressible, Antal. You expressed it. Thank you.

From the Black Creek River to the Grand Canal

The episode with the Mississippi egrets described in my last posting was incorporated into my novel, Southern Rain, now available via Kindle and at selected bookshops in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore; it is also available for pre-order, in advance of the general release of the print version in January.

The appearance of the Mississippi egrets, transposed into Chinese cranes, foreshadows the meeting of the hero, Ouyang Nanyu, and the heroine, Ouyang Daosheng.

Just beyond a tributary called Witch Mountain Spring, Nanyu noticed two white cranes flying upstream and then perching on the embankment. When the boat drew close to them, they took off again, swooping on ahead, before coming to a new resting place at the side of the Canal. Nanyu reckoned that the cranes moved ten times this way over the course of an hour—leading and waiting, leading and waiting—as though luring him ever onward. They didn’t seem to be feeding, and if they were migrating north, Nanyu wondered why they didn’t just get on with it, without waiting for him to catch up. If they wanted to stay on the Canal but were afraid of the boat, then why didn’t they fly to the side, to allow it to pass? For the rest of the day, Nanyu was sometimes invited to share food, sometimes asked for help maneuvering through a lock, and then, he would forget about the cranes; but whenever his activities were finished, he’d look up and there they would be, still scouting out the route.

Nanyu continued to see them after he closed his eyes that night, but in the morning, they were gone.

Image

Mississippi Egrets Haiku

Last Saturday (September 20, 2008), I went canoeing down the Black Creek River in Mississippi. All day long, there were these two egrets in front of us. They rested in trees along the bank, until we almost caught up to them, and then they would fly a few yards downstream, to wait for us to come up. No matter how swiftly or slowly we paddled, they were always there, leading us. We stopped for an hour to eat and swim, and when we got started again, they got back to guiding us. It was so quiet, you could hear the fluttering of their wings. It was poignantly unreal, like a Chinese or Japanese poem, painting, or film.

Back home, I composed a mediocre English and (with Yuka’s help) a pretty good Japanese haiku.

Autumn, the river,
Egrets constantly guiding,
Leading us downstream

夏過ぎて
白鷺共に
川下リ

(Natsu sugite
Shirasagi tomo ni
Kawa kudari)