‘I’d never seen anything like the Ivanas in Trump Plaza’
With the clack of wealth on bruise-coloured marble nothing seemed real, just like now
‘I remember women flocking to the store to be shod, like bristling ponies. Ivana lookalikes, power dressers, hair the colour of rape fields, shoulder pads wider than elevators, smiles that could crack glass’
I bumped into an elderly gentleman of my acquaintance recently, a man who lives alone. He was standing still, anchored to his shopping trolley, the wind whipping up the fallen leaves around his ankles. It was cold and his face, normally assured, seemed hollow, carved by the winter sunlight.
I stopped to talk to him, and noticed that his eyes had watered, I assumed from the bite of the breeze.
“There is nobody left to telephone,” he said, as if our conversation had long since begun.
He has an interesting voice, playful, a little imperious, precise. He would have made a fine actor.
He went on to tell me that his twin sisters had recently died, their deaths occurring within a short time of one another. They had been close, the sisters, the fabrics of their lives tightly bound. Their departures, preceded by other deaths within the gentleman’s extended family, had silenced, finally, the chime of the telephone.
The long-distance phone conversations we have with friends and family punctuate our lives; they seep into the ether of our thoughts over weeks and months and years. They meander along familiar streets or take us to unknown continents. We keep in touch. And then, gradually, it seems, they stop. Silence.
A man I knew once shared childhood memories of his father, a decorous character, who owned the only telephone on their street and who combed his hair whenever it rang, replacing the comb on the shelf, pulling down his cuffs and straightening his tie before finally picking up the receiver and uttering a sonorous hello.
We’ve learnt since then that communication requires no such noble preparation. “I’m sorry for your loss,” I said to the elderly, dignified man. And I was, deeply sorry.
I left him, moored to the pavement, in a sea of yellow and gold and wine-red leaves, stilled maybe by time’s dirty work, by being that last man standing.
I thought about that conversation recently, as I wandered around my home, from radio to television where, from each station, the news of Donald Trump’s victory gushed like a wound.
The phone rang, it was my sister, at a loss to make sense of the new dispensation. “Don’t write about him,” she said. “I can’t take any more.”
“It will be too late anyway,” I explained. “By the time my article is published, the entire country will have had him up to their withering back molars.”
I put down the landline phone, slim and silvery and easily mislaid. It’s never, ever, in its cradle; I hear it ring, tear around the house like a lunatic, vault over the couch, belt up the stairs, find it on top of the cistern just as it rings out.
I know. I know. I could get another phone and tether it to the wall. There are a lot of things I could do to make my life easier: install a cat flap, learn to reverse-park, get some actual typing lessons, stop feeling so damn sad.
Speaking to the dead
Its’ a useless phone anyway: it doesn’t call the dead, and on that Trump-fuelled night, adrift in the bilious fear of an unknown future, the dead were the only ones I wished to speak to. The living, after all, had their own wounds to lick.
I wanted to call my friend, who died 18 months ago, a woman in her 70s, full of humour, political nous and acumen, who read everything and who would somehow have built a wall of protection around us with her wit and knowledge.
About 30 years ago I spent a summer in New York City with my then boyfriend, who had a job in a shoe shop in Trump Plaza, fitting snug $1,000 loafers on elite feet. A soulful emigré, he was an unlikely shoe salesman. I remember standing in the glittering lobby, gobsmacked, cowed, bemused. The operatic water feature, the escalators drifting towards some tawdry heaven, the clack and smack of wealth and acquisition on marble the colour of an old bruise.
I remember women flocking to the store to be shod, like bristling ponies. Ivana lookalikes, power dressers, hair the colour of rape fields, shoulder pads wider than elevators, smiles that could crack glass.
I’d never seen anything like it. A little bit like now, nothing felt quite real. “There is nobody left to telephone,” my elderly acquaintance observed, and I think he might be right.
In this uneasy month of sudden, disorientating dark, in this playground for ghosts and ghouls, it is best to leave the phones silent and the dead uninformed. Somebody deserves a good night’s sleep.