|Transaction History 1 |
They walked around in the foreign city looking for someplace to have dinner: There was
an Italian restaurant, an Indian restaurant, a French restaurant, a Vietnamese restaurant, and a
Thai restaurant. Just like in their own city. And in every city they’d ever been to. There were
some hungers no restaurant could quiet or curb or quell, and she’d walk out even hungrier than
she’d gone in.
Sometimes—we couldn’t deny it—life surprised us, presenting us with a sheep
in sheep’s clothing or a wolf in wolf’s clothing. But even this surprise would turn out to be, in the
end, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, for we would thenceforth mistrust our mistrust, upon which we
had come to build our houses. There were only two kinds of birds left in the neighborhood:
seagulls and starlings.
The light in the sky was bleu mourant—“dying blue”—a term for a particular shade of
powder blue he’d learned while working in an antiques shop one summer. When his girlfriend
left him that winter, he went around in the snow saying how all the blood in his heart had turned
bleu mourant overnight. And his heart had turned into an antique, for now it had carnal
knowledge of time.
From below, the snow looked like it had been on its way for centuries. People from the
small towns dreamed of driving into the city to have their choice of Italian, Indian, Thai, Viet-
namese, or French restaurants, but people from the city dreamed of driving to the small town’s
one restaurant with its three choices of entrée and its view of the derelict Greek Revival library
across the street.
Under the bleu mourant sky, the sad woman said, “When I wake up at night, I’m like a
self-destructive squid, shooting the ink of melancholy into my own heart.” Her interlocutor
answered: Nec piscatorem piscis amare potest. The small town’s populace had long been bitterly
divided into those who called the town’s main body of water a small lake, and those who called it
a large pond.
After dark, people gave the antiques stores a wide berth. As he slid behind the wheel of
his black Subaru to drive home to dinner, he tried to remember the last time he’d truly had an
appetite. Every last Christmas ornament on the tree had been made in China. Perhaps it was time
to reinstate the humble popcorn garland, the gingerbread house. Perhaps it was time, once again,
to eat Christmas.
The antiques owed what value they had to those people who believed that objects could
give them carnal knowledge of incarnate time. Some countries were winners and some losers in
the cosmopolitan restaurant sweepstakes. There were, for example, no Norwegian restaurants in
the cities. There was a hunger that just got hungrier and hungrier. Unquellable, nodded the self-
The city-dwellers found that they would regularly sleep peacefully through a succession
of trains, sirens, and garbage trucks—only to be awakened by the small barking of a faraway
dog. She would never admit it, but she was secretly delighted when her errands took her to the
department store, where the whole of the material world was organized and taxonomized down
to the last hazelnut.
“The fish cannot love the fisherman” implies that the fish has tried. Notice no one asks
if the fisherman can love the fish. There was one hunger hungrier than any other: hunger
without appetite. Some small towns on the peninsula now consisted almost entirely of a few
rows of antiques stores. When the city people left the cities, they wanted only to be reminded of
Transaction History 2
The dark-haired librarian said, I started to sleep better at night when I moved into an
apartment across the street from an art museum. Knowing that, hundreds of years after the fact, a
green-eyed merchant still looked out aloof from a fur coat, a butterfly still perched on a
pomegranate next to a skull, and a blue view of distant hills still hovered behind an annunciation
scene with a stunned Mary calmed me down in the deepest locked vault of my being.
Some people were starting to find the sun oppressive, filling the world with its idio-
syncratic version of reality as it did day after day. Never mind that it was summer. Looking back
through her notebook, she saw that she’d written down “The architects say to the doctors, at least
you can bury your mistakes” at least three times in the past year. In 2010, the visiting Chilean
president wrote “Deutschland über alles” in the German president’s guestbook.
As the city densified, they found themselves looking for non-places. They kept getting
obsessed with filing cabinets. They were bewitched by the debt spiral. There still seemed to be
some cups in the cupboard, but there were no more gloves in the glove compartment, and hadn’t
been any in years. One night she found herself sitting in a house high on a hill with spectacular
views, but in the dark, the only thing she could see in the windows was herself.
The great artist told us that he had never slept better in his life than the year he lived in a
house opposite a zoo. All he had to do at night was pretend that his wife lying next to him was
one of the nearby zebras, ponies, or llamas, all of them sweetly sleeping, and he himself would
slip off easily into a deep furred sleep. The little girl, upon closer questioning, turned out to have
just one wish for her tenth birthday: an entire box of fortune cookies to herself.
Day after day: sun, clanging through the windows like a relentlessly cheerful succession
of garish carillons, whether certain people liked it or not. “Keep working, and do not despair,”
wrote Brecht. Beware the voluptuousness of the demand curve. Happiness is a golden section. A
lot of people seemed to like to go to the New York Public Library, establish themselves at a desk
surrounded by books, and spend all afternoon sending texts on their cell phones.
It wasn’t that hard to walk through the city with the eyes of a developer, evaluating the
organization of space according to maximization of profit. Or you could walk through the city
with the eyes of a disappointed Romantic, that wasn’t hard either, prizing a grassy empty lot
bejeweled with dandelions, or a brick building caught in midruin still faintly advertising “Coal.”
Nothing was very hard, when you came right down to it. Except sleeping.
I never slept better in my life, the green-eyed lawyer told us, than the years I lived across
the street from an old graveyard. In the evening my girlfriend and I would sit on our balcony with
bottles of dark beer and drink in the deep peace emanating from the headstones, whose names had
all been gently effaced by time. In India, a man opened a restaurant called “Stalin’s,” not realizing,
he later said, that “Stalin” was anything more than a “famous European name.”
Sun, again. And again. There wasn’t a single dress in the dresser. “Bureau” his dead
mother had called it. “Chesterdrawer” they said in the South. His mother had larded their bureau
drawers with bars of unwrapped perfumed soap. That was before they got sucked in by the
uncanny allure of regression analysis. The girl was willing to share most of her possessions, but not,
oh not the box of fortune cookies, which she stashed carefully under her twin bed.
A glass, a debt, an absolute ceiling. In truth, there were far more suitcases in the city than
suits. “Summer afternoon,” wrote Henry James, were the two most beautiful words in the English
language. But for the heartbroken, the overworked, the underemployed, the grieving, and the
lonely, “summer afternoon” was not two words but a sentence. And the schadenfreude they
exuded on a cold and rainy July day hovered over the city like an extra layer of cloud.
Transaction History 4
If ignorance is bliss, then happy people are by definition stupid. The melancholic had
always known it, sitting at home nights organizing her collection of plastic owls. In the clock
museum we learned that in schools, hospitals, and train stations there is one master clock and
many slave clocks. The city at the bottom of the lake was like any other city at the bottom of a
flooded lake: a mirror of our own desire to be drowned in insignificance.
Was it meaningful that you were quick to tell me there was a term for the nineteenth-
century swooning that occurred in the Uffizi in front of Michelangelo’s David, both men and
women fainting to left and right before the dazzling marble body, but could not come up with the
term itself? It was your birthday. The plastic owls had been manufactured to scare away other
birds, as if wisdom itself were frightening—and indeed it was.
It was not possible to go to a restaurant and not put something in your mouth. The coffee
table book was not on the coffee table, but in the bedroom splayed voluptuously across the bed.
You felt old. What was I to make of our new neighbor’s garden, resplendent with belladonna and
nightshade, false indigo and foxglove, spurge and vetch? At the clock museum we read on a panel
that, until around 1850, only the very rich could afford to tell time.
One artist has painted more self-portraits than any other artist in history. The scruffy old
man wearing a brown velvet jacket standing on the modernist bridge was asked what one piece of
advice he would give to young people. “Don’t bring owls to Athens,” he answered, staring sadly
down into the river. Watching him on TV, I wanted to bring him to the clock museum, the one
place on the planet I felt I had most truly lost track of time.
The city at the bottom of the lake haunted the solitary swimmer, who liked to imagine he
could see the top of a drowned church steeple far down in the depths. Holding a spoonful of
blackstrap molasses, the melancholic, despite herself, started to think: If she could inoculate
herself with black bile, might she be granted the occasional dose of ignorant bliss? While we
looked and looked at clocks, the clockfaces were looking at us.
The smoky glass oval in the velvet case was a Claude glass, through which city people on
excursions used to turn the countryside picturesque. If we trained the Claude glass on the city, it
would just remind us of how far we’ve fallen from the sweet ha-has of days gone by. The
melancholic loved smoky ovals. In the clock museum you kept scoffing and insisting that all
clocks are master clocks, since it is we who are the slaves of time.
Enzyklopädie des Ungeschmacks 3
On the center shelf of the “Encyclopedia of Bad Taste” was a square of blowzy rose-
patterned wallpaper which, the sign noted, was still a runaway success for the manufacturer
to this day. In other words, the extent of the general benightedness was beyond the encyclopedists’
worst nightmares. In the distance, two black church steeples rose above the trees like two black
We heard that he had gone into the glazier’s and ordered three new windows and a dozen
donuts. The melancholic wished she could get what she wanted in life as effortlessly as a bee gets
pollen from a flower. Shouldn’t the objects of her desire also cluster impassively in a field,
beautiful and bursting with pollen, and defenseless? The result, she knew, would be exquisite
“Taste” was so infantile anyway. As if rational adults could only judge the world like
babies, sticking everything they got their hands on into their mouths. At the breakfast table,
you snapped open the newspaper and read that yet another celebrity had been found asphyxiated in a
hotel room from too much autoeroticism. If you lick a banana slug, it is said, your tongue goes
It seemed the equation could be made: The more sad plants in the office window, the more
soul-eroding the job. A cluster of dusty Boston ferns and spider plants was like a wan green SOS.
If the blowzy rose wallpaper is not to one’s taste, one can just spit it out. The encyclopedists had a
stash of volumes of Adolf Loos for palate cleansers. The melancholic ate a whole angel food
There was the beautiful and then there was the sublime, but nowhere had anyone said
anything about the tasteful. Was an Alp tasteful? Was a blowzy rose tasteful? After all, a great
Russian dancer started out as the Golden Slave in the Kirov Ballet and ended up on The Muppets.
The most elegant ice skaters in the world decorate their apartments with hordes of pink teddy
We found it a bit amusing to imagine the encyclopedists hunched over their labor,
collecting specimens of bad taste with proselytizing zeal to disabuse a public addicted to blowzy
rose wallpaper and never, ever to renounce it. A bit amusing, and a bit pathetic. We liked blowzy
roses—a bit. The word “bit” comes from “bite.” Try as you might, there is no circumventing the