Friday, 24 October 2014

Windows On The World

Sometimes during the chaos of prepping tables for breakfast I’ll get five minutes of peace, and I’ll walk over to the windows and look down over the city. On a certain kind of spring morning, when the rising sun paints the South Tower with a certain kind of pale fire, I find myself transported back to my first shift. I’d never been up in a plane, never even been to the top of the Empire State Building, and it was a struggle not to drift off and spend that first day staring out at the view, trying to spot our house on the far side of the river, pressing my face against the glass in an attempt to look directly down and pick out landmarks from our former neighbourhood.

I quickly realised the latter was in vain – even if physics hadn’t stopped me from peering down the side of the tower, nothing remained of the streets on which my brother Asim and I were raised by our Dad. He’d owned an electrical goods store in a district that was all electrics bar the pawn and liquor places – Radio Row, they called it – and we’d lived in a dark but spacious flat above the shop. I remember the day the Port Authority guys came around to talk to Dad about the towers, about the offer they were going to make him to pack up and move – it seemed generous at the time, though looking back it was probably loose change to them. Still, Dad was doing chemo at that point, and Asim was locked up for his first armed robbery, and with me struggling to look after the shop on my own Dad saw it as an answer to his five daily prayers. He didn’t care that Radio Row was going to be levelled. Looking back, I’m not sure I cared either.

Between the payoff and Dad’s savings we were able to buy a house in Jersey with views east over the river, and to pay for a live in carer for Dad, who we set up in a first floor bedroom by a window overlooking the old neighbourhood. Dad only left the house over the next four years to go back to hospital once in a while and hear that the cancer had either retreated or returned; he slept a lot, and when he wasn’t sleeping he sat in his armchair staring out the window at the towers going up. It was an obsession for him: he joked that he wanted to live long enough to see them finished, which in the end he didn’t – he passed away the summer before they topped out.

I quit my job at the bakery and spent the following months alone in the house, sitting for the most part in Dad’s old chair and watching the final pieces of the towers being lifted into place. A lot of things were going through my head, not many of which I can remember now, but there were definitely times when I wondered if I was losing my mind, and I knew that people from the old neighbourhood were starting to worry about me. One day a friend who worked in construction called and said that they were weeks away from opening a smart new restaurant on top of the North Tower, and that he could get me an interview if I was interested. I’m not ashamed to say that I hammed it up in that interview – I didn’t mention Asim’s latest stint behind bars for fear of blackening my card, but I went into our forced relocation and the levelling of the old neighbourhood, and of Dad passing away before he got to see the towers finished; I even mentioned the drunk driver and Mom dying when I was nine, which is something I hadn’t talked about in a long time. I’m not sure what came over me, but in that moment I realised that I’d never wanted anything more than to work on top of that tower.

On an April morning six weeks later I found myself walking down West Street in polished shoes and a smart white shirt, and stepping into the lobby of the North Tower for the first time – my name was on a list, and the receptionist smiled at me like I couldn’t have belonged there more, pointing me towards the elevator that lifted me straight to the 107th floor. And there it was, that view to the rim of the world, the sun rising from the depths of space itself, its rays ricocheting off the South Tower. I stood there staring until my supervisor came over and barked at me to get in the kitchen for a briefing – there was a lot of barking in those early days, as no one really had a clue what was going on: none of the chefs had spent more than a few hours in the kitchen, and the menu remained largely untested.

Less than an hour later the doors opened and they began filing in: fresh faced boys in sharp suits and ties racing over to the windows to peer out over their new dominion, high fiving each other over the tables, waving actual wads of money around. This was their world, I reminded myself as I stood to attention, concentrating on maintaining an affable smile as I moved between tables taking orders, careful not to break into a run as I hurried to and from the kitchen. I remember thinking that there were an awful lot of cocktails being drunk given that it was 9am, and a mingled sense of empathy and relief when a waiter who wasn’t me dropped a tray of breakfast plates to a resounding chorus of high school cheers. But I don’t remember much else until the hordes had thinned down to a few solitary diners making deals over bottles of champagne, and my supervisor came over and touched me on the arm and told me to take a break. I went over to a quiet corner and stood looking down at the sprawling circuitry of the only city I’d ever known, all the interconnecting pathways of my history visible at once, and I knew then that I had found the one thing that could save me.


It’s hard to believe, but that was almost thirty years ago now. I’m approaching my sixtieth birthday, a new millennium is looming on the horizon, and I still can’t seem to move on from the restaurant. I long ago went from waiting tables to overseeing daily operations – long ago became that guy who goes around touching the arms of waiters and telling them to take a break. I still sleep alone in Dad’s old room, still look up at my workplace from his window first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Sometimes I catch myself in the mirror doing my affable work smile when I’m alone in the house. I guess it’s part of me now.

Not much changes in the city. Crime is down, the streets are cleaner, but the bankers still high five each other over tables, still get drunk on cocktails at breakfast, still wave actual wads of money around and occasionally laugh in the faces of my waiters. This is still their world, and as far as they’re concerned it always will be. But the more time I spend looking out at this shimmering city, the more I find reassurance in the fact that all of this will one day be gone. Yesterday in a flash storm I watched as a tide of rainwater ran down Schermerhorn Street swallowing up parking restrictions painted on the side of the road, and I thought: one day nature will reclaim the earth, and none of the signs or superstitions that we use to insulate ourselves against the big questions will protect us. The great calamities of humanity fall into cracks of forgetting between the generations, and so we go on living in imaginary bubbles of security, convinced we can build towers so tall that they’ll never need to come down. But of course everything will have to come down.

For all that, I seem to spend more and more time thinking about my childhood on Radio Row. Asim is gone now too, and in his absence I find myself endlessly replaying those summers: the water fights and fleeting schoolyard romances, the comic books and television shows and the magic tricks Dad used to goof up after dinner to make us laugh. Recently I’ve started dreaming that I’m standing on top of the tower, looking over the edge at a point where the ribbed metal disappears in an enormous drift of cotton cloud, and in the dream I know that if I leap into the void I’ll vanish in that cloud and reappear in the old neighbourhood, Mom and Dad and Asim waiting for me at the table as I run home to dinner through darkening streets, the dusk sky purple. I know how silly it sounds – the wandering mind of a lonely old man – but I always wake from those dreams feeling like everything is going to work out fine.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Brixton Hill

Photography by Mike Urban

On the 133 down Brixton Hill,

En route to Guy's to meet my Dad,

Whose operation has been postponed till afternoon

And who is wandering around the Shard, angry and hungry and under instructions not to eat,

I raise my hand,

And a fraction of a second later

The me looking somewhere unspecified on the CCTV screen raises his.

And it feels that this is somehow important, this gap,

Like the 21 grams supposedly unaccounted for in the human body after death,

Seen by some as evidence for the existence of a soul.

The me on the bus feels no more or less real than the me on the screen,

But this infinitesimal void in between

May contain something like truth.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

When You See Me Again, It Won't Be Me

I try to avoid writing opinionated reaction pieces without waiting for the perspective afforded by a few days passing, but I claim special dispensation in this case. Twin Peaks is my weakness, my guilty pleasure, a silver thread running through the last 25 years of my life that I occasionally pull on to contact the kid at the other end. I attend festivals, collect memorabilia, have interviewed cast and crew members, David Lynch included, for a number of articles over the years. I’ve never stopped watching it, at least once a week returning from a particularly dreary day at work and popping on a favourite episode over dinner. ‘For Cyrus, a true fan,’ it says inside the gatefold of my season one box set, ‘from Kyle MacLachlan (Special Agent Dale Cooper)’. Why, then, while other true fans around the world flood social media with a tide of celebration, does the news that Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost plan to air a third season in 2016 fill me with despair?

Part of it is selfish defensiveness of the sort that many die-hards carry against modern remakes of their childhood icons. I was 11 in 1990 when the pilot aired on British television; I remember sitting in my bedroom watching Dr Zhivago on a boxy black and white television that had the brand name of my mum’s curlers burned into the plastic casing, and flipping over to BBC2 in time to hear a voice introduce the UK debut of this American show I’d been hearing so much about. As the pilot progressed I remember feeling as though I was sinking into another world – that chill Northwestern town, its population of odd but believable characters, its universe played out in signs and riddles, dreams and visions, with music always in the air. Over the coming months my brother, my best friend Spencer and I never missed an episode, often reconvening to watch the weekend repeat, discussing our theories amid the safety of a spider web strewn boot room at school that we called the Bookhouse, on whose cold brick walls we scrawled symbols and code names in black polish.

Yet it’s not just nostalgia that informs my lifelong attachment to Twin Peaks: the show remains a towering achievement, a Trojan horse of artistic integrity somehow smuggled on to primetime television, rendering obsolete overnight the televisual output of the 1980s and helping to define the creative decade that followed. Its surreal humour, its blurring of the line between of picket fence naivety and moral darkness, its powerful undercurrents of sex, drugs and supernatural violence – these things continue to echo in the age of Netflix and HBO. The dream sequences in The Sopranos, the abstract narrative in Lost, the pagan ritual murder and existential dialogue in True Detective; it's possible to argue that none would exist had Twin Peaks not redefined the very notion of what television was capable of.

Yet despite its enduring legacy, and for all the show’s extraordinary popularity at the time – before long Lynch was appearing on the cover of Time magazine, his female leads on the cover of Rolling Stone – things didn’t end well for Twin Peaks. Lynch and Frost were granted a second season on the condition that they reveal Laura Palmer’s killer early on (some claim the network feared lawsuits if the ‘whodunnit’ hysteria gripping the world spilled over into copycat killings); having done so, both lost interest in their creation, leaving to pursue other projects while Twin Peaks descended into farce and self-parody at the hands of mostly inept guest writers and directors. By the close of season two the show had been shifted to a graveyard Saturday night slot, audience figures had plummeted, and though Lynch himself returned at the eleventh hour to direct a mesmerising final episode – ending on a cliff-hanger of such terror that my brother and I were rendered speechless until lunchtime the following day – it wasn't enough to persuade the suits to commission a third season.

Amid all this it’s not hard to see why Lynch and Frost might feel compelled to return and finish the job. This isn’t a cynical money making reunion: both are aware that the worldwide Twin Peaks community has only grown over the years, that something about the show is still shifting units and filling festivals, the latter always attended by a few costumed and quote-armed kids whose own parents were teenagers when the pilot aired. Perhaps there’s a sense of guilt at work, that the creators somehow let down the fans and the cast, one of whom described to me a feeling, prevalent on set during the deteriorating second season, that Lynch had shown them the Garden of Eden and then abandoned them in Purgatory.

Regardless, this doesn’t justify risking a reprise 25 years after the red curtain came down. That strange world that Twin Peaks occupied, somewhere between innocence and experience, between heaven and hell, between the 1980s and the 1990s, has long since been swallowed by the tide of passing time. During Twin Peaks’ first airing the online community consisted of a few disparate chat rooms; now we are an audience in thrall to simultaneity, to quick edits and countless alternatives and the sense that there’s always something more important happening on the next channel. How will the new Twin Peaks play? If Lynch and Frost make concessions to modern attention spans they’ll be seen as selling out; if they write and shoot with the earnest whimsy and glacial pacing of the original, then they risk holding a mirror up to how much we’ve moved on. Either way, it seems doubtful that they’ll be able to recapture the original’s mix of small town innocence and feverish sexuality, its horror or its humour or its human warmth. Lynch’s one return to Twin Peaks, the feature length Fire Walk With Me, is now hailed by some as a masterpiece, but bombed on its release for many reasons – its unremitting darkness, its feeling of being hacked together from a dozen different screenplays – but chiefly because it attempted to show on screen that which had previously been left to the viewer’s imagination, namely the double life of the late Laura Palmer. As David Foster Wallace wrote in an essay penned on the set of Lost Highway in 1995: ‘Laura was no longer “an enigma” or “the password to an inner sanctum of horror”. She embodied, in full view, all the Dark Secrets that on the series had been the stuff of significant glances and delicious whispers.’

Those unanswered questions that may seem the most obvious reason for a third season – Is the good Dale trapped in the Black Lodge? Did Audrey die in the bank vault? – are in fact the kindling that has kept the fire burning at the heart of the Twin Peaks community all these years, providing raw material for fan fiction and speculative essays and furious debate in online forums. The sense at Twin Peaks festivals is hard to describe, but there’s always a feeling not dissimilar to that at a wake: the grateful celebration of a beloved life cut short. In its final conflagration and decent into chaos, each of us witnessed Twin Peaks fall apart before our eyes. It wasn’t easy at the time, but over the years we have learned to love unconditionally even the worst actors, even the most hackneyed characters, even the lamest, most desperately tangential subplots. Twin Peaks fans have individually and collectively put the show back together, carried it within them and nurtured it, allowing it to grow into something without beginning or end, where there are no authorities anymore, only the source material and the individual’s interpretation of it.

I should finish by saying that of course Lynch and Frost have every right as the creators of Twin Peaks to return to the town and reanimate the story; I should also add that I don’t think for a second that they plan to go in there demolishing dreams or scrupulously tying up loose ends. I’m sure the contract with Showtime will have been carefully structured to allow them to flex their creative muscles, to be surreal and sinister without rhyme or reason, to relive the sense on set that Frost once described to me as “the inmates overrunning the town”. I just fear that it’s too late – that Twin Peaks was a moment in time and space that will be endlessly revisited, but never convincingly recreated. The actor Ray Wise, who played Leland Palmer, pre-empted such sentiments in an interview in 2005. “I’ve always felt that Twin Peaks was meant to burn very brightly for a short period of time,” he said. “Almost like a comet. Very hot, very intense, very passionate. And then it burns out and disappears.”