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Back of the Bottle

"Since George Smith built his first distillery on this wild hillside before 1824, his whisky has been allowed to take its time and mature at its own pace. But from time to time a cask is tasted and considered so special that it is left in its dark cellar to rest a little longer. Its time will come, say the distillers. This superb whisky was drawn from such casks, after more than eighteen long years. In this time more than a third of the contents have evaporated -- 'gone to the angels,' say the Scots. This is a very rare example of a superb single malt Scotch whisky."

I have written here before about my father, and his ugly death, but I don't think I mentioned how near the end he was running through The Glenlivet at a pace of about a fifth a week. Don't judge him for that, trapped in the house alone where he had raised a family, his wife dead, his sons scattered, his once powerful frame hunched and tethered to an oxygen machine that he could with great effort wheel about.

I could stand in the driveway of that house and throw a rock with my eyes closed and have little risk of hitting another human being. Now I live and work in a place where millions stream by my home each day, and The Glenlivet easily costs $20 or $30 more per bottle than I recall it costing at that little liquor store in my hometown, out by where the strip mall cineplex stood before it caught fire. They never rebuilt. Now I could throw a rock and hit a movie theater.

Five blocks from my apartment building is the Times Square Church, where sermons are delivered in more than a couple dozen languages, an old movie house that packs in thousands of believers a week. One week the poster showed an armed man in a mask -- a reformed bank robber, it turned out, coming to tell of his salvation, in what language I do not know. Five blocks or so south of there is Times Square, a strange and ghastly place that tourists believe is the neon essence of New York City, but which is filled with tourists from Ohio and such parts, and people like me, trying to get around them to work.

Times Square, USA

They walk three abreast. They walk with running videocameras held aloft. They stop short without warning. They hold hands. It's abominable. They think they're walking on a country lane, as one wag once said, not realizing that the New York sidewalk is a superhighway with traffic rules and customs. So yes I walk through their camera shots. So yes I walk straight forcing their hands to part. So yes I nearly step on them when they stop short. But I love them, I do, thankful that they still come. Be not afraid. This is a holy place. Not long ago, some New Yorkers were called up to the angels. Come buy our T-shirts, half-price.

And oh, the sights.

You first notice them, the "Black Israelites," shouting through megaphones in the traffic island. They too have video cameras. They tape the hecklers in the crowd. They claim to be one of the
lost tribes of Israel, but you don't get the sense they like Jews much. They certainly don't like white devils. They spew hate.

Just one stop on the Times Square tour.

Now here we have the screaming teeny boppers with their signs and their bared navels and their upward gazes at the MTV studios, where N' Sync or the Backstreet Boys or one of those interchangeable sexpots is performing. The shrieks fill the square.

The Virgin Megastore is a three-level complex with 10 billion compact
disks, DVDs, books and a movie theater downstairs. OK, I made up the number. But it's big. Half of the listening posts are broken, though. And you can get any of this stuff cheaper on the Web.

Headquarters of the Naz. What a big cool neon sign. You catch it in the corner of your eye, and you get vertigo, you almost stubmle. Kind of like the Naz. Lots of flash, little substance, and you can imagine it crashing to the street. And right across the street, how fitting, the new tower is going up that Arthur Andersen was going to occupy as the main tenant. Not anymore. Whoopsie.

Here's a little cafe we call Starbucks. They have great coffee! There used to be other cafes, but as a SBUX long I'm not complaining. Timothy's World Coffe -- gone. Nick's Souvlaki -- gone.

That long line of meatheads and teenagers over there -- those are the World Wrestling fans. "Who are you waiting to see?" They look at you like you're an idiot. "The Rock! The Rock!" The star is here to sign his "book."

Here are the sunglasses salesmen and the sidewalk sketch artists from China. They display sample sketches of celebrities, the photocopied work of a single talented artist from long ago. Your own sketch will not look quite so good. The guys with suitcases full of fake rolexes, and the fortune tellers, and the spraypaint artists, and oh here
comes the beat cop, telling them to move along, because it's that time of the night when the shift commander swings by to ask why the heck these guys haven't been rousted already, c'mon guys, just doing his job, get a move on, you can come back after the shift change.

Not a hooker or drug dealer in sight. This is the scrubbed-clean American night. The peep shows are mostly closed, but you'll find a couple. The strip clubs are now upscale "Gentlemen's Clubs." They have high cover charges, sell cigars and steaks. Couples go there on dates -- or so it is said. I don't know about that.

Oh there's the Naked Cowboy, playing his guitar in nothing but a pair of briefs. I think he stuffs'em.

There are the shows, of course. The Producers. Thoroughly Modern Millie. I'm not one for musicals, but some people love that. And you can sample any cuisine you like. Sri Lankan? Yes. The dishes of Marseilles? Yes. Every region of Italy. Indian. Afghan. Sushi.

There's the pet store on Ninth Avenue with its little zoo of feral cats, awaiting adoption. I take my daughter there, and she laughs at them when they play in the window.

That homeless guy with the big bottle -- he has to collect $20 in pennies for his organization, then he can keep the rest. If you yearn for the grand gesture, hand the man a sawbuck.

And, for you alcoholics, between AA meetings on the hour, every hour, in that big old church in the 40's, you can hit bottom again in the bars: There's one that seems to be full of video games, a tourist trap, as seen on "Sex and the City." Find yourself near the Port Authority and a single light on an unmarked door, the new location of Siberia. It used to be in the subway but was forced to move. Some rules: No cursing. No hitting on the women.

Don't mind the rats. Rudy's has free hot dogs and flat
beer and a weird theater crowd. The Film Center Cafe. Any number of
pristine fern bars like The Joshua Tree, named that for what reason?
Perhaps an oasis for wayward Californians. And if you really stray far, sample the vodkas at the Samovar and the Russian Vodka Room, in the 50's.

A glass of single-malt will set you back here.

Here's where they drop the ball on New Year's Eve. I'd skip it -- head north to see the fireworks in Central Park instead. I've seen the people gather, and I've seen the litter apocalypse afterward, but in all these years, I've never stood out there when the ball dropped. The closest I came was the faux millenium, the night before the odometer turned, when we all thought the terrorists were going to hit. They caught that guy on his way to LAX, but it was an uneventful thing.

Journal entry, Jan. 1, 2000

The simple headline on the cover of the paper, 1/01/00, says it all. All the fears of Y2K computer collapses, planes falling from the sky, terrorist bombs, and so on, failed to materialize. I made my
way to work in the early afternoon for my shift... The company threw a bash, with great food, a jazz band, commemorative doodads and so forth. J. was very worried I wouldn't get out of the Times Square area, as was I, but at 9:30 I joined the early shift in heading out. (There was a brief scare, when I thought I wouldn't get out -- a guy from Michigan was arrested with handcuffs and a loaded shotgun in his car in a parking garage that seems to have been right next to the apartment building where we are buying our condo this month -- at first there was talk of lot of guys, weapons, bombs, but that proved to be just a rumor.) I walked west and then south, past the revelers making their way to the already sealed Times Square then east to Madison Avenue, where I flagged a cab. The guy was glad to be out of Manhattan. He took me home to Astoria.

Shortly after 10, I stood outside the picture window of our apartment and called J., pregnant five months. She wasn't expecting me for another hour. "I need you to do something for me," I told her urgently. "Look out the window." Spooked, she did, and there I was, waving. She had gone to the movies with her friend S. and her boyfriend, who split for a party. Then she watched the TV coverage worrying. She made guacomole and cooked up some veggie snacks, and we spooned on the futon channel surfing, having passed on friends' various invitations to go out. Better to be close to home. Jane and I prepared to kiss at midnight and pop the champagne (ginger ale for her) when I said, "I want to kiss you in this century," and I did, right into the next century.

We could hear fireworks in the distance all the way over in Manhattan, and the neighbor kids were banging pots out in the backyard. The TV coverage went on and on, much as it had all day, from time zone to time zone. Many impressive fireworks displays, from the Washington Monument to the Eiffel Tower (seemed to be the best -- fireworks exploded horizontally, a neat effect.)

So I guess all those people hoarding guns and bottled water are going to flood the market. I do admit that J. loaded up a little extra food, no more than we would for a storm, and we did put new batteries in the lanterns and flashlights. I also took $350 in cash out of the bank, but that's not much more than I would have on hand normally. The government issued lots of extra bills, but demand was low and the bills will be pulped.

The paper is thick and interesting; I'll try to save a copy for our daughter. She is bound to be curious about the start of the year, century, millenium in which she was born.

My hopes and dreams for the century are almost surprisingly mundane -- I want to live in a good home, comfortably, do well at my job, see the birth of a healthy daughter this year and see her grow up. I imagine parenthood will be rewarding and heatbreaking and terrifying and wonderful. J. is growing through a lot of pain, loss of sleep. She is asleep now on the futon (its' 9:24 am) while National Public Radio whispers a review of the last century. Life is good right now.
Each moment flows on like a river, and Zen would teach us not to seek to hold on to that passing moment -- it is a good moment, but it is gone now. And here is another. Happy New Year."

It Is Now

The new century really began last September, of course.

Some of those phrases in my journal give me chills -- "planes falling from the sky" "better to be close to home" -- and take on added meaning now. The story we tell ourselves now is that we were in some kind of American dreamworld, that we could not conceive of an attack on our soil, but it is clear that we knew it was possible, but we put it from our minds. We were more worried about computer failures and Y2k, which seems faintly ridiculous. You can fix a broken computer. You can't put lives back together once a falling building grinds them into dust.

The other night I was getting ready to leave work, when they told us that the police had found a package and that Times Square was sealed off. There has been talk of dirty bombs irradiating a 10-block radius, making it uninhabitable for decades. When you realize how many trucks pass through here each hour, you know there's really nothing anyone can do to stop something bad from happening. You just shrug and wait. If you let yourself be scared, you can't function.

But the package was nothing, and the incident barely rated a mention anywhere. Tonight I walked home and there were those tourists, walking three abreast, holding hands, randomly videotaping the crowd, stopping short to gape at the naked cowboy, and I don't know why, but when I saw a group taking a picture of something stupid, a cop's horse or newsstand, I stopped before crossing into the shot. Hey, I'm a New Yorker. That doesn't mean I have to be a jerk.

Come visit. And if you want a single malt, head downtown to DBA on First Avenue near Third Street, they have more than you can count on all your fingers and toes -- all of them better than The Glenlivet -- and after a few, you won't be able to count beyond one hand. Hoist one for my old man while you're at it. Neat, with a water back.

P.S. Secret spy code for Joe M. in L.A.
10-7 26-16-22 8-16, 21-9-6 21-6-19-19-16-19-10-20-21-20 24-10-13!

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