Last week, as I was returning home from running errands, I looked up at my back porch and froze. There, in midday, right by my door, was a rat.

For a fraction of a second, we looked at each other. What was it that passed between us? Not hate. Not universal love and understanding. Just surprise. I yelped, and the rat tripped over itself, rolled down a couple of steps, leapt from the stairs, and disappeared.

It was the first live rat I had ever seen in Cambridge. They are a growing problem in the area—but so is their removal. Poison doesn’t just kill the rat population: last April, for example, a well-known red-tailed hawk who had nested in the area for years died after eating a poisoned rat.

This past week, a timely brochure from the Cambridge Public Works arrived in the mail: ¨Preventing Rats on Your Property.¨ The advice is harsh: ¨Starve them. Wipe them out.¨

I can’t claim to be pro-rat, but it would take a serious situation to get me to actively track and kill a rat, especially a rat that shares, at least part-time, my property and environs, since preference for a location, at the very least, seems to be a neighborly thing we have in common.

If only a more friendly feeling could develop between us.

In the 1970’s B-movie ¨Ben,¨ a little boy named Danny bonds with a rat (Ben) who happens to be the leader of a destructive swarm.

¨They’re putting poison underneath all the houses and killing all the rats!¨ Danny complains to his sister.

¨Rats are dangerous,¨ she says.

Danny pauses. ¨Some rats are okay.¨

The rats end up killing several people. In response, the police torch the rat colony (with flame throwers).

But miraculously—predictably?—inevitably?—Ben makes it out alive:

Eleven Perfect Lines



¨Who is the mortal who can live forever?
The life of man is short. Only the gods

can live forever. Therefore put on new clothes,
a clean robe and a cloak tied with a sash,

and wash the filth of the journey from your body.
Eat and drink your fill of the food and drink

men eat and drink. Let there be pleasure and dancing.¨
But Gilgamesh replied to the tavern keeper:

¨Tell me the way to find the only one
of men by means of whom I might find out

how death can be avoided. Tell me the way…¨


from David Ferry’s ¨Gilgamesh,¨ Tablet X

The Lowest Key

“…the poet’s habit of living should be set on a key so low that the common influences should delight him.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet”


Lately, I have had a lot of free time. It has been hard to find time to do much, what with all my time taken up in being free.

Passing the slow, quiet days in and around my apartment, treading familiar ground, I am sometimes lucky enough to find my little world grow larger, more connected and fantastic.

At the base of my front door steps a pile of oak leaves has gathered, peppered with broken acorns. I look up at the oak branches, branches I’ve never looked at before, where these exact leaves and fruits must have shaded my first steps to the street, spirit-like, in summer.


Walking along the driveway, too, I notice the Japanese paper fox balloon hanging from my kitchen window. It was taped there a few years ago as an afterthought and forgotten. Now, the fox seems to be staring at the neighboring apartment’s window. How long has the fox stared this way? Have my neighbors felt watched? Watched over? Protected?


Behind the house, one tree is bare of leaves but full of squirrels, although it’s easier to hear them than to spot them. The tree must be full of nests.


Last winter, on a late January night, a Chinese family gathered in the adjacent parking lot and launched traditional New Year’s paper lanterns. One lantern, on its ascent, flew into the tree and caught fire. It burned, the flame growing larger and larger in the wind, threatening to sweep to the garage roof. The lantern became tangled in the bare branches, though, and the fire extinguished there a few minutes later.

It was the last lantern they sent up. But others were still visible in the sky, sailing off at intervals—lanterns with ¨chambers,¨ like those Elizabeth Bishop describes, that ¨flush and fill with light/that comes and goes, like hearts¨:

Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars—
planets, that is—the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,

or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it’s still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

(from ¨The Armadillo¨)

Xu Bing’s ¨Phoenix¨ at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine

The words magic and machine share the same Indo European root: magh-, ¨to be able, to have power.¨

To some degree, our idea of machines has always been invested with a sense of magic. To the lay public, technological objects, whose inner workings remain hidden or are too complex to trace, appear to function by trickery or by a mysterious supernatural impulse.

The hidden element that allows a machine to work can provoke a sense of wonder and a religious mixture of awe and dread akin to what David Nye calls ¨the technological sublime.¨

Xu Bing’s art installation, ¨Phoenix,¨ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, seems to lift from these correspondences. Built from raw materials and debris found on construction sites in Beijing, two machine-like birds soar, by some inexpressible power, within the cathedral’s nave.


Copyright GothamGirl 2009-2014

Physically, culturally, for better or for worse, these phoenixes defy expectations of what is possible.

Brooklyn Heights: Construction

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself (3)








Nick’s Gas and Service

Last spring, after one of my car tires deflated as I pulled out of the driveway, I parked and walked 200 yards to Nick’s, the nearest filling station and mechanic shop, to ask for advice.


I’m a Nick’s regular, but I know very little about the people who work there beyond what anyone would observe with each quick, practical visit. For years, my gas had been pumped either by a Lebanese man named Karim, or an attractive young guy whose name I never caught and was too shy to ask for. Both are gone; Karim died of cancer a year ago, and soon after, the young guy moved on.

After Karim died, another Lebanese man would often pump my gas; this, I learned later, was Nick, the owner. Nick is older, in his eighties; his bald head is peppered with spots and his gait is slow. His accented speech, emphatic, punctuated by silences, makes it seem as if he’s half here and half elsewhere, but he’s sharp, in charge, in touch, and focused on the nuances of his shop.


I stepped into the garage and explained my situation to a younger assistant. He thought for a minute. ¨Go back and drive the car over here, we’ll take a look.¨

Then Nick appeared from behind a lifted car. ¨No, no, no!¨ he said. ¨This can ruin the wheel.¨ He pointed a finger at his charge. ¨You pump the tire and bring it here.¨

Dutiful, the assistant walked back with me and pumped some air from an ancient metal canister into my tire. As he pulled into the garage, Nick watched, checking out the tires from a few angles.

¨You may need a new tire or you may need just a patch. We’ll put it on the lift and look. Wait in there,¨ Nick said, gesturing to the little registry room off of the garage.


This was my first time inside, but looking around, something felt familiar. A lot of things, actually. The garage, the office, Nick: they all reminded me of my grandfather, Joe, who was a race car mechanic. Worn, smelling of stale cigarettes, and lit by fluorescent lights that seemed to have survived a few decades burning at the same low temperature, Nick’s place was spare, like my grandfather’s garage, containing just the basics. I could feel how much time was spent here: minutes, hours, days—a lifetime.

My grandfather was an impenetrable person whose conversation ran almost exclusively along the lines of cars, race cars, and races. As a child, I felt in his garage a mystique laced with touches of comfort and touches of fear. Deep in a central Phoenix, fifties-era neighborhood strung with one-story houses and backyard citrus groves, his garage loomed out back off a stretch of polished red concrete. Inside, the garage was cool and dark. The shelves were lined with old peanut and cashew canisters filled with (metal) nuts and bolts. A pinup calendar hung on one wall; naked women with huge, cartoonish breasts posed on top of Jaguars and Ferraris. Fixed in the middle of the room would be, of course, a car, one of a few classics, the gods of that house, whose inner workings were as mysterious to me—and as little probed—as those of the man who worked on them.

Who was the person in this space? I only knew the contours of the space itself, and even then, I only knew them from my limited perspective. I only could tell, whatever it meant, that this room, a universe lit by metal, rubber, and oil, was my grandfather’s place. This was where he really lived, which was the next closest thing to who he really was.

My family would drive to my grandfather’s house twice a year, in the late afternoon on Easter and Thanksgiving, after visiting the extended Lebanese family of my grandmother (Joe’s first wife), who died when my father was a little boy. We’d sit in the living room as Joe chain smoked, ate mixed nuts, and discussed cars, race cars, and races with my father, until he would finally lead me, my brother and my sister through the garage for a good look at the cars. (A favorite: the Model A—he’d start up the engine for us).

Then we’d step out the garage’s side door to the backyard, where we’d pull ripe grapefruits from the trees and throw them to the neighbor’s flock of sheep. The sheep would eat them skin and all. I dreaded trips to Phoenix, but throwing grapefruits to the sheep as the air cooled, next to the polished red concrete and the garage, the concrete so close, so smooth and odd to me, from another time—this holds up as one of my most mythic childhood memories.

Trips to my grandfather’s house always ended this way: a tour of the garage, a few grapefruits thrown to the sheep, and then a shuffle down the red concrete to the front yard, as the sun set, to say goodbye.


I looked into Nick’s garage, taking in its energy. Can a space itself, and a person’s presence in it, say enough about who that person is? How intimately can one know another simply by spending time in the rooms in which the other spends the most time? Those rooms might say everything and nothing at once.

And within the rooms, their objects—these cars—how much can they say? As an adult, I now understand the value—the necessity—of mastering complex but predictable systems. Among other things, they can function as conduits, ways to relate to others—even if those ways are abstract, or remote, or deeply incomplete.


I stepped into the garage to ask Nick how the inspection was going. Before I could ask, he turned from the car to face me. ¨The tire is fine,¨ he said. ¨It needs only a patch. You live right down the street?¨

Yes, I said, right down the street, so I could come back anytime to pick up the car.

I wanted to ask him something unrelated to the car—anything. ¨Do you live in the neighborhood too?¨

¨No.¨ He was quiet. ¨I live here,¨ he said with a laugh, then paused.

¨You come back in an hour and it’s finished.¨

Morocco: Correspondences

To Correspond:

1520s, “to be in agreement, to be in harmony with,” from Middle French correspondre (14c.) or directly from Medieval Latin correspondere, from cor- “together, with each other” + respondere “to answer”

Online Etymological Dictionary


Four miles from the village of Ait Benhaddou, along a winding, upward, desert path, stands a lone fig tree marking the site of a spring. Just ten or so years ago, before indoor plumbing came to the clutch of villages strung along the Ounila River valley, each family trekked with donkey and vessel here and back, here and back, to gather enough water for the day.


After the shadeless climb, resting under the fig tree’s foliage, I imagine what an unlikely place of celebration and communion this must have been.  Today, a place remote, absolutely abandoned and silent; for so many years, a place where water was poured and portioned out, where food, stories, news was shared.

The roots, cutting through the rock like tributaries, mirror an unfinished electrical box outside the walls of a crumbling kasbah in the village of Tamedakthe.


Drawing on vital substances from below, the roots and wires each mark sites where deep human needs and desires concentrate and are dispersed—where exchanges take place between elements, between people.

Walking back to Ait Benhaddou along the road servicing the valley, I notice the power lines that slip beside the pavement.


Their upright and sloping lines seem not alien from, but a part of the surroundings, shaped as if in response to the landscape; like the fig tree’s roots, they are a visual reminder of the practical human connections (and incredible real solutions) that undergird daily life.