In the age of COVID we humans are still palimpsets more than any other thing. Uriel Kon reflects on the paradoxical statute of humankind and the need of communication in the isolated world that administrations and health authorities are building for us. We give a warm welcome to Uriel Kon in his first contribution to penúltiMa magazine.
Ten years ago I gave myself a gift, which I opened today for the first time. As far as I recall, I wasn’t in the best of existential states back then. I traipsed glumly between Boston, Virginia, New Jersey, Manhattan, and Long Island. Having no desire to write, I developed the compulsive and mindless habit of picking up local free newspapers from their sidewalk receptacles. Cause and effect are not known to be relatives, and so my existential neurosis manifested itself in the form of hoarding, just as pressing on the stomach might lead to an itch in the ears. I remember myself roaming around, stopping every time I passed by one of those self-serve free newspaper racks to pick up a new specimen. I didn’t read a single word of what was written in those newspapers at the time, although the collecting itself took on monstrous proportions: one hundred and twenty three discrete items, which I layered in cardboard boxes that got dragged back home with me to Jerusalem upon the end of my visit to the United States, straight into my closet.
Much water has passed under my bridge in the last decade. Time has flown by, as is its wont, faster than one can keep up with. For instance, since that time, I have moved five times, closed and opened businesses, gotten divorced, and watched my two daughters grow to proportions and sensitivities that I couldn’t have even imagined when I traipsed among East-Coast newspaper racks. In the meantime countless newspapers have gone under, and hundreds of thousands more have been printed. Of these, I held onto my stash of free weeklies.
At this moment, ten years later, all of us are closed up in our homes. The pandemic has rendered time a sort of still life, making us wonder who we were and how the world of yesterday even looked. It is in this context that I remove the cardboard box from my closet, place it on my bed, and open it up. The newspapers have yellowed but I feel time has come to return them to life.
As I sit on my bed in a ring of newspapers from the past, I think about the hundreds of millions of words that are written, shredded, and forgotten every day. Words printed in paper that was handled, leafed through, tossed aside, reused, perhaps recycled. Articles, ads, lay-outs, and headlines behind which stand writers, editors, copyeditors, and typesetters. Thousands of people toiled to produce each of those most temporal of products. Until not long ago the newspaper was an essential and beloved object. Who hasn’t snatched up a fresh issue of a paper still giving off the aroma of ink?
Reading material. Man eats text. The most arbitrary and base category: The news. And after that: Ads. Is Doctor Awei Migadaki – a member of the World Congress of Oral Implantologists – still building perfect mouths in yearly installment plans? Is the Spanish restaurant “Galicia” still offering steak-and-sangria nights on the background of guitar duets?
What came of the mysterious thefts on 204th and Cooper, reported in the Manhattan Times? And the woman who was attacked from behind and her cell phone stolen at 1 am? Or, if you want to delve into the history of the African-American community in Sugar Hill, Harlem, all you have to do is turn the page. First-hand accounts teach us about the existence of black enslaved people and servants in upper Manhattan as late as the end of the 19th century. Around 1910 the African American community made up about 10% of the overall population, and by the 1970s it had reached 90%. Amsterdam Avenue came to be known as the black SoHo. Kids played cat and mouse with the guards of the mansions, while others watched Giants fans – white folks – getting off at the C train station. Many still remember the golden age of Sugar Hill and the taste of the food at Wilson’s Bakery, to which thousands of local diners and tourists made the pilgrimage just to eat the biscuits, grilled fish, corn pies, and peach cobbler.
I stay away from news of the pandemic. I will not be a slave of COVID-19 statistics or a prisoner of the contingencies of the present. The daily news are inherently transient, as if at once not yet born and already stale. The box of newspapers from 2010, on the other hand, feels new and fresh, hearty and robust. It is a plot machine, a story chest. I feel a literary itch. A kind of fictional effect occurs the moment you read a newspaper outside of the instrumental time for which it was created. If you will, the box is like a can of preserves using the ultimate preservative: time. If we wait long enough, the news can be used to create a new textual food. Why canned goods? On the one hand, the date of printing of the newspaper is equal to its expiration date. But on the other hand, the purpose of the journalistic text doesn’t have to end with its figurative canning date. As the newspaper ages, new opportunities open up, opportunities that can enhance its initial flavors. The most mediocre cucumber of the present may be the finest pickle of the future.
Let’s set the Coronavirus aside for a moment and take a trip in the New Chelsea of 2010, where, nestled among an item about the arrest of a man in possession of three Ecstasy pills and a bag of marijuana in his left pocket, is an article about post-modern churches and priests, and a letter to the editor with a complaint: why did the newspaper publish on the front page of its previous issue a full-page article about the closing of the Baby Buddha Chinese restaurant and push an article about the danger of the closing of Saint Vincent’s Hospital back to page six?
In The Brooklyn Paper, next to an ad for a rehab program for opioid addicts, we read about Mrs. Laura Mayers, who lost her parrot, Gracie. The parrot escaped when Mrs. Mayers’s husband accidentally left the door open when taking out the trash. Twelve years the parrot had lived with Mrs. Mayers, until it flew the coop to explore the skies of New York. Happily, at the end of four mysterious days, another woman was watching “Treasure Island” on TV in her apartment on the twelfth floor when she noticed a parrot standing on her window sill. She tempted it with an apple slice to come inside, and following a thorough search, returned Gracie to her prison cell.
I Am New York warns us about buying too-large condoms, as they can lead to unwanted pregnancies. Underneath an ad for new Nokia cell phones, another article sings the praises of sex as a means for reducing the risk of breast and prostate cancer. In Caribbean Life we read that some Central American countries are going through a drought. Lawyers offer their services to deal with the IRS for uninsured patient who get into an emergency. And a poll in Metro says that the American people are the most attractive in the world.
My plan to rescue buried news items from the caves of nothingness, now of all times, brings me some amusement. Sometimes I take a pile of newspapers to my first-floor balcony and notice pedestrians out for their 100-meter exercise walk, looking suspiciously at my occupation. An issue of The Latin Gaze floats down into the hands of a passerby, who flips through it quickly and rolls his eyes at me dismissively. That issue, by the way, had a really big article on the identification of the youngest star in the universe at the University of Madrid, next to a tiny piece on poisonous metals found in a children’s jewelry store in China, tips for purchasing tickets to the World Cup matches in South Africa, and facial treatments using avocado and strawberries.
I want to claim in the face of the dismissive exercise-walker, that in fact obsessing over our deficient present is the ultimate sign of insanity. Because the Corona news gives us an existential discount, creates an illusion of a present tense that is saturated with historical power and significance. The news is addictive. On the other hand, what harm do my free papers do to anyone? They are full of gems of fiction and hastily scribbled beauties. I read and read and read some more, until the question begins to grate at me: where are all the words? Where do they go? What is the point of producing texts using language – that elusive entity made up of signs that attempt and ultimately fail to mediate life for us? What came of the hundreds of millions of manuscripts, first novels, family histories, stories of secrets and traumas, unrequited love, pained poems, avantgarde works that “will change the face of literature”? And what about the book we dreamed of writing and labored over for twenty years, sitting in our drawer? The words that get lost and dissipate in time are we ourselves.
I read a Jazz weekly, an evangelical rag, a paper for senior citizens, one about sex, a South Orange local, a tools sale magazine, and I ask to myself: where are you? What has become of you? In the absence of a universal storehouse for all the words that have ever been written and all the sentences ever uttered, at a moment when most texts don’t survive the test of time, it becomes clear that at the end of the day we are writing only for ourselves. We always write as a mirror of the first person. We write in the impossible effort to penetrate into the outside space. In that sense, the basic impetus for articles such as “Margarita Morales: Living for the Community,” “Singer Roberto Carlos prefers ice-cream and sex” or “Celebrities who got caught up with criminals” is no different from the inspiration for the most perfect paragraphs of Marcel Proust.
The sun enters through my bedroom window and the spring illuminates the fan of newspaper pages with a halo of yellow dust. In The Hispanic Voice, a groundhog prophesies the number of weeks until the beginning of summer. A twelve-year-old girl is arrested on suspicion of writing on a bench at her school. The weekly horoscope recommends that we Scorpios take the events of existence as a life lesson. Venus will have a big influence on us. My lucky number is 311. The Trentonian tells us that the Taliban is attacking and that a police station has been robbed. The Metro informs us that Obama’s aunt immigrated to the United States. Gay City tells us about a gay Shakespeare production. At The Princeton Packet they’re expecting another snow storm. In L Magazine we learn about the last virgin in New York. In El Especialito there is a piece on cleansing your karma by participating in a Thai burial ceremony, in which the living lay down in a coffin with their eyes closed and a bouquet of violets. In another issue, they claim that boredom is bad for your health. In The Times of Princeton we find out that changes are expected in NJ Transit train service. According to the Columbia Spectator a 51-year-old man died after falling off a scaffold. The Onion reports a three percent rise in teenage pregnancies. According to Reporte Hispano Mexicans are the fattest on the continent and 476 potential drug dealers were arrested. The Independent is looking for a culture editor. In US 1 a man suffering from amnesia forgot who he is but continues to recite Dylan Thomas poems by heart.
I can’t remember who I was in 2010. I don’t remember who I was before the pandemic. Everything I have ever said has been lost. The things I thought have vanished and what I wanted disappeared. I can hardly remember a thing. Where for God’s sake is everything that I said, the script of my imagination, the letters I sent? I have saved only crumbs, images, random words. In this sense, I am little more than a free newspaper. Perhaps our inner mechanism works like the office of a local paper, with a small archive located in the brain’s back room and anonymous writers formulating unedited sentences.
Like in a free weekly, life has no logic. There is no re-reading. We are filled with the remains of raw texts, half-realized aspirations, and the occasional pleasant surprise.
Soon the evening will set. The sun has made its way through the rooms of the apartment. The obtuse nights under the pandemic close us inside ourselves and the present threatens to attack. I don’t give in easily and compose an uplifting song from sentences from my free newspapers:
The flavor of the week is banana.
A lettuce-grower from Arizona is selling flowers in Manhattan.
She wakes up in the morning with symphonic rock on her IPod.
The head of a psychiatric hospital emptied the cashier and ran away.
A creative writing course in twenty different styles.
Lecture: How does the touch of skin feel on the moon?
The sun disappeared from Harlem for forty-three days.
A new medicine for enhancing the imagination.
Invest your debts in stocks.
How to become a soccer mom.
Is your personality related to the weather on the day of your birth?
Gastronomy is a tool for fundraising.
You can rescue a dry brain with meditation.
Pension doesn’t have a happy end.
The way to the end can involve a charming and infinite trip, practically paradise.
These are us. Voices. Fear. Contradictions. Wishes. And gazes. Sparks of life. Ephemeral newspapers. These are us, the living free papers. Gods of the moment. Marching forward. Yearning for an eternal present that doesn’t acknowledge its mortality.
These are us, the free papers. Aware of our fate but projecting eternal life.
I return the newspapers to the box, and the box to the closet. I have rescued a few sentences and connected them to others. “Whoever saves a single sentence saves the whole of humanity.” Every text is a desire to compose a small song where everything is flickering sounds: on and off.
At the closet door a thought comes to me, also flickering: how strange that the minor words of newspapers are not preserved anywhere. And yet they exist. And ultimately those words have a use. Or perhaps they can be preserved, in someone else’s closet. If so, then this is the goal of literature, this is the goal of communication, of language: to be rescued, even if by just one person.
Uriel Korn born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1975, he resided in Jerusalem for the past twenty years. A trained architect and urban planner, in the last decade and a half, he had written and published numerous essays on various themes, among them literature, architecture, music, photography, and cultural criticism. Uriel taught modern literature and architectural theory at the Minshar School of Art and the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and worked as an editor for various publishing houses in Israel. In other fields, he had programed and produced international-cultural symposiums, curated exhibitions, and produced albums in the field of Jazz. In 2015, Uriel established Nine Lives Press, his first fully independent venture, dedicated to the promotion of modern classics, contemporary high-end fiction, avant-garde pieces, and literary treasures from across the world. Other than that, he is responsible of publishing more than ninety percent of the Latin American literature in translations to Hebrew for the last decade. Nine Lives Press is one of todays leading independent publishing house in Israel. His first book, Making Places, came out in 2019.
La imagen que ilustra el texto es de la fotógrafa Julia Borissova, su trabajo puede conocerse en su página web: http://www.juliaborissova.ru/