Letters from New York 2: Soti Triantafillou

Slow Train by Soti Triantafillou

Slow Train

I went south on a slow train that ran through Trenton, New Jersey. Back in the nineteen eighties, I used to stand on the turnpike hitchhiking westwards. It’s a desolate landscape now, full of boarded up factories, abandoned warehouses and rusting machinery. The rivers are green and slimy – I remember that old song about a green river and barefoot girls dancing in the moonlight. A Creedence Clearwater Revival song.

They were different times with different rivers.

Life was made of metal; I wandered among steel mills, power stations with cooling towers, limekilns, grain elevators, cranes and lathes. The cakes were made of mud – they blew up, sometimes they even caught fire. It was W.H. Auden’s beloved scenery, industrial, hazy, faceless; I rode trains between granite mountains and drove on yellow brick roads, on bridges that swung when the cursed birds of Prometheus hovered and crowed. I traveled past deserted graveyards, thermal springs, uranium mines – I had no destination, no purpose. I listened to the vibes of the universe, to the sounds of the hollow earth.

I remembered the details, I forgot all the rest: my memory was like the enchanted land of New Mexico, dusty and blurry, carved by the red Santa Fe railroad – I remembered useless things, people with orange hair, walls made of bottles, herds of wild horses, Pete Townshend’s crooked nose, a sandstorm in Phoenix, Arizona. I forgot what was worth forgetting. Looking back I saw the psychedelic dances at Fillmore and at Avalon and further back the hula-hoops and the polka dot prom dresses and Elvis singing Lawdy Miss Clawdy. I saw myself when I was five years old and rock’ n ’rolled with small feet in pink socks. Thirty years went by and I drove through them in a second hand Thunderbird 66, high as a kite. Some of us popped pills, some snorted glue, others sniffed varnish and lighter fluid, and there were a few who shot up Chinese heroin – in the dissolving darkness I saw the black crawling moon; time turned into jelly and stood still. Now, when the train’s is pulling in the Penn station I feel like kissing the ground, like walking on Brooklyn Bridge on a tight rope. One of these days I’ll take a chance like Steve Brodie who jumped off it and survived.

Soti Triantafillou. March 2012, New York City.

Photo: Soti Triantafillou

Soti Triantafillou is one of Greece’s most prolific and beloved writers. Born in Athens, Greece in 1957, she studied in Paris and New York and is the author of 24 books, all of them long-sellers. Her first novel, Saturday at the Edge of Town (1997), has attained cult status and has been hailed as the most important Greek novel of its generation. Her fourth novel, The Pencil Factory (2000), has become a publishing phenomenon in Greece and has been translated into German, Catalan and Turkish. An independent political debater, Soti Triantafillou has over the years built up a considerable reputation for herself as one of Greece’s cultural icons, famous for her outspoken views and critical stance towards Greek and international politics. Her autobiography, Time Again, published in 2009 and her latest novel, For the Love of Geometry (2011), have become national bestsellers.

Letters from New York 1: Soti Triantafillou

Alphabet City Photo Soti Triantafillou

Return to Alphabet City

The February sun is setting in red and in orange. I’ve already got sick three times and recovered four. The city is blinking and the gardens look electric. Halcyon days went on until Mardi Gras; they are still going on. Early in the morning I’m standing at the bus stop on Avenue D, in front of the grim Edison Plant – chilly winds are blowing from the river. I’m back in Alphabet City, back after almost thirty years. I used to walk through gauntlets, the neighborhood was a shooting alley. Never was I afraid – cities are like dogs, when you’re frightened they attack you.

New York has always been good to me and I’ve been lucky.

For years, the days went by, ticking, and clock hands moved in circles. The nights raced like the horses I had seen at the rodeo of the prison in Huntsville. Sometimes things would happen, magnifying, zooming things: I flew by them on the crazy bird of my destiny. Now this wave of time carries me away: what will not happen now, it never will. At Tompkins park, in the old days, the homeless used to camp; I was looking for Doc Pomus’s Lonesome Avenue. I remember “Save the Robots” on Avenue B: it opened after two a.m. and the party went on till noon. I remember Earl Scruggs playing the three-fingered banjo at an Avenue A haunt -now demised; I remember Richard Hell playing with the Voidoids at an Avenue B haunt – now demised. I always thought Avenue D might be the Lonesome Avenue, I don’t know for sure.

The nights start late in Alphabet City and they end early: in the morning whiteness, the armies of darkness fade away – slothful Blacks sweep the night garbage at the corner of Avenue C and 5th street. I live at random, striding over a lost plot of land. I always said the world was a witch’s kettle and I’d fallen in it. I’m still saying it: the world is…

I have recurrent dreams of splendorous colors, fruit is floating in space – everything is illuminated. The time when the days were raw, the landscapes were blind seems far away; late at night I’m walking past Tiffany’s and the windows are shattered and the diamonds are falling onto the sidewalk.

I’m happy I’m out of the Huntsville prison and not in it, happy I’m not lying in a mortuary bed. I’m grateful I survived these thirty years, only I don’t know whom to thank. The clouds pass me by and I keep walking on this live, gilded Caesar’s map. The winter is long in these parts: the shadows darken and the winds roar, shining rains hit the bridges.

It was a wonder year and I was afraid that every moment of it would become a memory. The present flowed into the past before I could see the fragments, before I had a chance to leave – leaving is what I do best. I remember that I had no skin; I wandered amongst the ruins -in Alphabet City the dreams last longer than the night. Then, I left in my battered Chevy promising to come back in the spring. I didn’t. I didn’t come back in the spring. Nor did I stay anywhere in particular: I was celebrating the great black vacuum, the purposelessness of it all. I drove west and then I drove south. I remember meeting a drifter at a roadhouse and he said Let’s paint the town red – only there was no town to be painted red. We were night owls on blazing highways; we were born too late; all we’ve learned we’ve learned it from other people’s stories.

It was a wonder year that shone through dead mirrors. It was like Poe’s poem to Annabel Lee, like the most intoxicating cocktail of light. When I left, I was wondering – How am I going to pay for the motel rooms, whom am I going to call collect, who’s going to sit in the driver’s seat – now that I’m back, “Save the Robots” has closed down, Richard Hell is married and Earl Scruggs is too old to play the three-fingered banjo.

Soti Triantafillou. February 2012, New York City.

Photo: Soti Triantafillou

Soti Triantafillou is one of Greece’s most prolific and beloved writers. Born in Athens, Greece in 1957, she studied in Paris and New York and is the author of 24 books, all of them long-sellers. Her first novel, Saturday at the Edge of Town (1997), has attained cult status and has been hailed as the most important Greek novel of its generation. Her fourth novel, The Pencil Factory (2000), has become a publishing phenomenon in Greece and has been translated into German, Catalan and Turkish. An independent political debater, Soti Triantafillou has over the years built up a considerable reputation for herself as one of Greece’s cultural icons, famous for her outspoken views and critical stance towards Greek and international politics. Her autobiography, Time Again, published in 2009 and her latest novel, For the Love of Geometry (2011), have become national bestsellers.