Excerpt from Picnickers In New York, A Fugue For A Lost Cartographer


for R.

O, how was America then, pre-discovery? Suffice to say there is no experience like being smack in the middle of this billowing concerto. It could turn out to be our tarnation or salvation, depending on the jury and their tote bags of mood swings. “You sound a little pitchy in the second verse.” But don’t you see, it’s all a harmless karaoke session, a symphony of wolves having a minxy reprieve of fun from a day’s hunting… A quizzical prairie dog would rear its head from its security blanket and nobody would lift a paw. For those commercial breaks, the globe twirls in total harmony and no one eats no one else: “In the months of spring, we will play like silly butterflies in the strawberry fields, but do keep out for muggers and axes with vendettas.”

Then pop goes the weasel. It takes merely one off key to change the dynamics of the whole corporation, to unravel the fabric of the nation with its own rotisserie of allotted roles: butler, maid, grande dame, parvenu and a masked serial killer on the loose. In comes summer, hot, flustered and shaggy, distracting everyone with its vaudeville of itches, leeches and hot flushes. Trotting behind it, a leash of no-names tiptoeing in from stage right in camouflaged leotards, trying their utmost not to rattle the snakes. Occasionally, a renegade will break the chain and deliver a vaunting jump, pirouetting across the white desert before an off-stage gunshot is heard… It’s the end of the illegal rope, this time. Other times, the clandestine serial has just begun, scattering into sweatshops, factories and restaurants in pursuit of the transcendental dog bone: The American Dream. In olive autumn, the yellow leaves are shed like mid-life crises, only to be recalled with incremental nostalgia in the manner of professorial chairs summing up the city in fine china and regal blue: In 1664, the British took over the Dutch colony and renamed it. Today, on Independence Day, faces and territories are being redrawn again like brand new curtains. Little Italy retreating for the voracious Chinatown where we are now: at a dingy corner restaurant, slurping on our Singapore Noodles found nowhere in our own parquet homeland. Then the immigration hounds descend one day and the Inquisition begins…

But stop this psychobabble and focus on filming a feel-good holiday movie at hand. These are the great baubles and colourful trinkets we have collected over the blessed holidays. And since we’re on it, remember to grab mementoes for your family and friends to make up for the guilt and years of absenteeism. And how about some fridge magnets, pins, fake Rolexes, South Park tees and towels? “Hey, he went to New York and all we’ve got are these quaint bric-a-brac?” “I want my money back.” We all have heard this before. You nod vigorously. It’s the Curse of the Déjà Vu, even if the forgetful among us haven’t really experienced it ourselves. And then bitter winter arrives and we find ourselves in a creepy, psychological drama with evil rabbits and terrorised
peahens that shoot out of the left wing.

Who is this? What’s the prescription clerk with the one-eye patch doing here? Is this what you really think of us? A few minutes’ cruise away from an increasing din of misunderstanding, you stand in drapes of white on this spotless isle and a crown perched on your head. Unmoved for over a hundred years – right hand raising a torch of hope and left clutching a tablet – looking at the city we are and have been, and what would become of us… Too many stories have gone up in smoke, and what’s left?

An open cafe. Is it really all cream in this so-called latte? All these crimes and misdemeanours reduced to faint coffee stains on the wallpaper, fine, absent-minded scratches on the sofa courtesy of the lazy cat burglar, as the customers stream in and out with their specific, undying orders. The plot of the postcard meanwhile is retreating into another ordinary romcom and that’s okay, if that’s your career choice. Most folks revel in the daily soursop, without a bleep or false note, and they’re perfectly happy. Why ratchet up the intensity and live dangerously? You might keel over after the canteen break. The orange lozenge in the sky slowly being swallowed by the Empire State Building where Harry met Sally. Then rain, unstoppable rain, and everything is clean and fresh like before, with a room full of discreet mistresses. So no thanks for the dirty laundry – office drudgery magicked into miracle dust. And still you, the scruffy bricklayer with the stench of gin tonic and that all-knowing, lopsided grin, are on my mind, 24/7, but togged out in a different uniform every single night.

By the same token, love, do you have change, and how does one call home? Wherever you go the phantom towers stand where you once were. A pantaloon in black stalks the Haunted Inn of Memories, or maybe it’s the golfer’s own shadow that’d never leave till shoes are flipped and all cavities searched for combustibles? I don’t know. Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder is a cliché baste in golden sunshine, a roll down the lawns of our civilisations with digitally enhanced clarity and perfectly timed sprinklers to keep the grass green and the gophers hopping. That’s how the toilet paper unrolls over the years. Most times the picnickers have no idea how they have got here, which, if you recall, is a hidden grotto with its harem of microbes making do with what they don’t have – the lack of clean, running water, electricity, the works. If you never had it, you’d never hunger for it. So enjoy the fondue while the sun lasts. From this angle, as lovers (give and take a couple of future alimonies) recline on this bristling field feeding each other strawberries, sandwiches and california maki while a horse-drawn carriage trots past, the viewfinder clears up for a sec. The click! of a lock, the strike of a triangle, a hole in one for total recall. The Egyptian Obelisk, unblocked by fussy trees and outlined by the afternoon sun’s burnished glow, is true, faithful and zit-free. Ditch the jukebox. The Zoo’s open. I’m missing you already.