Ulysses: Empire State Building

Table of Contents here.

June 16, 2022 – Hopper stood on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. He stared up at the Empire State Building, straining his neck while he listened to the voicemail from the actor Edward Norton. With all the strength he could muster, he returned Norton’s call.

Hopper loved and feared the Empire State Building. He loved its historical majesty, for so many decades the tallest building in the world. For generations, it was a global symbol of humans striving ever upward. Anyone could ride up the elevators and feel what it was like to be in heaven. He had acquired his fear of heights when, at the age of eight and standing in the cupola of the building’s 102nd floor observatory, he diverted his gaze from New Jersey across the Hudson River to look down. Though encased in impenetrable glass and concrete, Hopper imagined a force of nature — or perhaps a mystical intervention – forcing him through the building’s membrane and hurtling him towards a violent and gruesome death on the street below, like Evelyn McHale. Everything started to spin.

He never ascended to the 102nd floor again. Since this staggering discovery of his vertigo, Hopper allowed himself to be coerced onto the 86th floor observation deck only as a family duty, and never closer to the edge than 10 feet. He made sure to wear clothes and shoes that he believed would weigh him down against the threat of being blown by a gust of wind over the suicide-prevention barrier. When he was 13 years old and his mother had dragged him, Olympia, and Silver to the Empire State Building to accompany her friend Joan Didion, Silver had shoved him towards the edge, and he peed his khakis.

“First off, I want to apologize,” Norton began. “It may seem like I am harassing you, but I wanted you to know that the film production has been scheduled. It’s out of turnaround!”

“That’s great news,” Hopper said, trying to be polite and sound excited.

“And I am preparing for the rehearsals,” Norton continued. “It’s so easy to take on a role like portraying your father and come out looking like an ignoramus if you don’t do the research.”

“I appreciate what you are saying,” Hopper answered, keeping the tone civil.

“The thing is, I want to find the real story behind what made your father someone who became a known quantity to strangers,” Norton continued. “Ninety-nine-point-ninety-nine percent of people live in obscurity. I want to investigate the truth behind what catapulted him to his level of fame.”

“That’s easy,” Hopper said. “My mother.”

“Your mother?”

“My mother’s the talented one,” Hopper continued. “She is a veritable chocolate fountain of ideas. She comes up with three decent ideas before she’s done with breakfast every single day. Mind you, my father went to art school and is good enough with a brush, but it’s my mother’s ideas he executes. My mother suggested he start painting wealthy patrons into memes. You know, like the Ryan Gosling cereal meme and the Dolly Parton meme. My mother introduced him to Julian Schnabel, who as a favor to her introduced him to Larry Gagosian, who marketed the hell out of my father’s work. My father just happened to marry a smart, creative woman who was getting bored living with a starving artist.”

“Fuck me,” Norton whispered.

“Yeah, Charlize Theron has the meaty role playing my mother,” Hopper said. “She’s gonna steamroll you if you aren’t careful.”

Hopper continued walking north on Fifth Avenue. In front of the Citibank branch on 37th Street, he spotted Simon. Not the Simon who was married to Silver’s friend Mina or the Simon who had been married to Dilly, but Simon his archnemesis who had been a year ahead of him at Stuyvesant High School. “Everyone needs an archnemesis,” his mother told her children over dinner when Hopper was 12. “You need not hate the person, but you do need someone against whom you can measure yourself.”

Hopper was smart and industrious in school. Simon was lazy, but he was a genius in that he retained information easily and was able to analyze and/or regurgitate it flawlessly on demand. He never studied because he did not need to study. He was named valedictorian of his class but skipped graduation because he did not want to write a speech, nor did he feel that he possessed any wisdom to pass along. Hopper’s mother, who used to go to the farmer’s market in Union Square with Simon’s mother every weekend, told him that Simon dropped out of Stanford because he was bored. He returned to New York and was working as a concierge in a medical practice, doing standup comedy, and making elaborately staged music videos for a YouTube channel. Simon lived in a studio near the United Nations. His father paid the rent.

Simon probably did not recognize Hopper as they passed because Hopper was wearing the face mask with a pug on it. He was engaged in a heated discussion with man wearing an N-95 mask. Even with the mask, the man appeared to be Stephen. Same haircut, same clothes Hopper had seen earlier that day. Hopper rubbed his eyes and looked again. He thought for sure it was Stephen. He wondered what his dead friend Huey would say about Hopper crossing paths with a dead poet on the way to spend the night in a dead investment banker’s home. What is going on? he thought to himself.

When he was in college, his mother had given him a bound collection of Stephen’s poems as a Christmas present. As a show of thanks or appeasement that morning, he pretended to read it in front of his family. Hopper did not like poetry. He did not have the patience to consider words on an individual basis. Hopper did not read so much as he scanned. He focused on significant words or phrases on a page and then moved on to the next page. He did not read writers who were considered talented; rather, he read writers who could inform him. His mother had also told him, “You learn something new every day.” A turn of phrase interested him far less than a hidden fact or a fresh insight. When still a teenager, he read Robert Caro’s 1,336-page biography of the New York politician and powerbroker Robert Moses in one sitting, starting after dinner, and finishing early the next morning. His sisters, who loved Stephen’s poetry, called their brother a Philistine. “I am a Philistine,” he repeated proudly in front of them, attempting to echo the famous phrase from the movie “Spartacus.”

His cell phone buzzed. It was a text message from Silver: “Going back on Date Lab. Call me.”

Continue to Chapter 11 here.

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