I almost went blind trying to read Ulysses. It was just after I’d finished graduate school. I packed up my son and my dog and a box of books and left Sag Harbor headed for Montréal. I was bitten by a deer tick the day before I left. No big deal. I’ve had Lyme Disease for years. So has just about everyone I know. What’s another tick bite?
Two weeks after I moved into my apartment near Parc Lafontaine, I was halfway through Leopold Bloom’s voyages through Dublin when the words on the page began to blur. My head pounded harder with every moment I spent in the sun. Every joint ached. I popped blue green algae pills in the morning, vitamin C pills in the night, drank gallons upon gallons of water to try to scare the spirochete away. It was time to see what this Canadian medicine was all about.
Me: I have Lyme Disease. I need six weeks of doxycycline.
Dr.: That is an extremely rare disease. No one needs that kind of strength of antibiotic.
Me: But I’m trying to read Ulysses and I’m going blind!
Dr.: Perhaps you should not try to read Ulysses.
I read it anyway.
So now, it is June 16 again and I’m back in Sag Harbor again and it’s Bloomsday. Time for the annual global celebration of James Joyce’s impossible prose. They celebrate Bloomsday in Dublin. They celebrate it in Manhattan and they celebrate it in Italy and they must celebrate it at Sylvia Beach’s “Shakespeare and Company” on the Left Bank in Paris, where the bloody book was published. They must certainly celebrate Bloomsday in Sag Harbor.
On Bay Street, there are women with baby strollers everywhere. Two young girls with matching red t-shirts are sitting under a tree by the yacht club waiting for a ride. They have a small dog and they are tired. Across the street every table is full at The Dockside. A hamburger at The Dockside used to cost $2. It was the American Legion’s restaurant and it was the American thing to do. All that changed about 10 years ago, like everything else in Sag Harbor. I can’t afford to go to The Dockside anymore.
A swan is guarding the boat ramp right next to Billy Joel’s lobster boat. It wants its picture taken. All swans in Sag Harbor want their pictures taken. I stop to take its picture with my Canon Rebel and three women in their 20s wearing sundresses and jewelry and toenail polish appear and they begin taking pictures with their cell phones.
“It looks weird,” says one.
“It’s got something in its butt,” says another.
“It must be pregnant.”
“It has a baby swan in its butt.”
“Get away from it.”
“That girl is taking pictures of it and it’s not bothering her.”
“I’m not a girl. I’m a photographer.”
“What’s in its butt?”
“How do you know?”
“It’s sick. I can tell.”
“Get away from it.”
Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses, has a big issue with religious identity. Everywhere he goes in Dublin, he is ridiculed for being a Jew. He’s been baptized three times and converted to Catholicism in order to marry, but it doesn’t really change anyone’s mind about how they’re going to treat him.
I have a different problem. Everywhere I go, I think people will ridicule me for being a Jew, but it never happens. I stare at my feet and hope I won’t be noticed. I keep my mouth shut when the annual virility of Harborite antisemitism begins. I need to live here, quietly, among the gentile natives. I need to survive. I need to feed my son. I keep my mouth shut and look at my feet.
Under Main Street’s sycamore trees there are benches. On the bench in front of the Whalers Cleaners, a man in a suit and a felt hat is reading The Independent. He has already read Newsday and now he’s reading The Independent. He is shrinking inside his suit. He can’t reach the ground with his feet. He might be 90 years old and he might not have much time left to live. I think of taking his picture but it seems like a cruel thing to do. There are two other suits neatly folded on the bench beside him. He has missed his appointment at the dry cleaners. The windows of The Whalers Cleaners are empty. There are no more cast iron irons and old sewing machines in the window. There’s a for lease sign and the store is empty. Reno is gone. My old homeless friend who set fire to the Whalers Cleaners basement, so many years ago, he must be gone too.
I tried to comfort a friend once, while sitting on that bench in front of The Whalers Cleaners. It was late afternoon and it was summer and people were eating ice cream and the breeze had been blowing in off the harbor for hours and the sycamore trees were singing.
My friend was an ash tree that day. His wife had just filed for divorce. He was a walking ball of pain. I was a kid with no good advice.
“Go to Murf’s,” I told him. “They have a magic jukebox there.”
I left him there to think about my lousy advice, and went back to work to write a story about the Architectural Review Board’s complaints that someone in the village wanted to paint their house blue. My friend never forgave me. But I will love him forever for putting what’s important first.
I walk up the steps of the office of my former employer, The Sag Harbor Express. The editor, Bryan Boyhan, must have read Ulysses. He must have some advice. The lever on the door to The Express is still tarnished. The window glazing is still cracked. Bill Wilson, the window washer, has been telling them for years to fix the glazing, so the air inside The Express stays inside The Express and the air outside stays outside. The door is locked. The newspaper is closed. No self-respecting newspaper is open on a Sunday.
A couple walks by en route to The American Hotel. They are fresh off a tour bus. The woman tugs at her husband’s sleeve until he stops walking.
“I think we need a reservation,” she says.
“They’ll let us in.”
“But what if they don’t like our clothes?”
“They’ll let us in.”
“It’s probably expensive. I don’t know about this.”
“We can afford it.”
In front of the pizza parlor, Conca D’Oro, there’s a white bicycle. My heart leaps. You see, a bunch of years ago, someone left a bunch of bicycles spray painted white all over the Hamptons. They were junk bikes, and you could take them anywhere and leave them there and then someone else would take them somewhere else. It was an art movement in Europe and somehow, like an invasive weed seed, it had crossed the Atlantic and been pollinated on this shore.
But this wasn’t some junk and it wasn’t an art project. It was a Martone fixie. It must have been worth $1,000. I looked around. Was this my Sag Harbor? Of course not. I sat on a street bench to think and the thoughts took me to Brooklyn.
Let me in.
I stood up and started to run. I ran past the Sag Harbor Cinema and I ran past the coffee shop that usurped Java Nation’s lease last year. I ran past The Black Buoy because it isn’t the Black Buoy anymore and John Steinbeck isn’t sitting on a bar stool in there talking shop with the fishermen. I ran past Schiavoni’s IGA and I ran past the storefront that Bookhampton vacated earlier this year. I ran past The Corner Bar and I ran past Provisions’ free compost stand.
In Marine Park, by the World War II monument, I stopped at another park bench to catch my breath. I looked at feet. More baby carriages. Men holding hands with men. Fathers and their sons and father’s day. Rastafarians. Bass players. Kids in flip flops en route to the beach.
In front of Billy Joel’s boat ramp, a Tibetan monk was taking a cell phone picture of the sick swan.
James Joyce once said “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”
There’s nothing else I can say to elaborate on that.
I don’t really know how many people in Sag Harbor celebrate Bloomsday. But I do know the nice ladies at Canio’s Books have a first edition of Ulysses. They said so when they posted this video on their Facebook page today: