A few brown sedans glide up a broad street. This is in Tribeca, sometime in the 1970s. The sky, empty and white, hangs over the dull gray shine of cobblestones. All the windows of the rows of tall buildings are dark. I can’t tell if it’s early morning or late afternoon and the few people on-screen are too far off to really see. The door of a van slides open and someone steps out, head down, and hurries to the curb. I’m almost sure I’ve stood exactly where the woman filming this stands. But watching News from Home, that is my constant sense.
When I was young, my father worked as the sales manager of a car dealership a couple hours north of Petaluma, where I grew up, just up the freeway from San Francisco, where he was from. In February 1996, the dealership had been open for only a few months, and he worked long days, occasionally sleeping in a motel but more often driving home at night.
He was 38, six years older than I am now. Before leaving town, he bought a coffee at Quick Mart and a large bag of M&M’s, and as he drove, he kept stuffing fistfuls of candy in his mouth, the air conditioner blasting. If he felt his eyes start to shut, he slapped himself and pinched his thighs.
At night that far north, the roads curve through a darkness so total he could see almost nothing—not the rivers drifting under the arched-iron bridgeways, or the redwoods that jut into the sky. He had been driving for half an hour or so when he fell asleep and spun into a ditch, wrecking the car, smashing his pelvis, and whipsawing his back. From then on, he would live in pain. Almost two decades before anyone spoke of an opioid crisis, he became addicted to pills. His marriage to my mother, already unravelling, now came fully apart. Within a year, I did not know where he lived—a series of SROs, sometimes his car.
I wouldn’t see him for months or years and then, abruptly, he would reappear—bloated, or gaunt, with a mustache or a goatee or a clean-shaven face. His eyes, green and rayed with little runs of yellow, were often slow and unclear but sometimes piercing. His curly hair receded into points at his temples and grayed and thinned. Sometimes his skin was dark from the sun and creased, or else it was pale. In time, rot overtook his teeth, until he had them all pulled and replaced with a pair of crooked dentures.
Ugliness works on you steadily, threatening to dim you until you can’t even think. It trains you not to look. I can’t remember everything he said when berating my brothers and me, but I can still see him, hunched over and stiff, searching for his stash of orange bottles. He is always losing them; they are forever misplaced. He drops to his knees and rips the cushions from the sofa.
In News from Home, Chantal Akerman ranges across the New York that she came to know when, in the ‘70s, at 21, she moved there from her native Brussels. This is the city of now-storied squalor, depopulated and bankrupt, “a ruin in the making,” in Luc Sante’s phrase. In time, all its lived pain will decompose, transforming into rich future myth. You could spend a long time crisscrossing the boroughs and find almost no trace of it now—much as I did at 19, my first time in New York, when I went to my father’s old union headquarters to ask if anyone he’d known was still around.
Akerman’s film, which consists of about 50 long takes of city blocks, vacant lots, and subway platforms and cars, positively shivers with disconnection. Every so often, a woman’s voice reads from the letters Akerman received from her mother while living in the United States. And what Natalia Akerman writes is full of grievance and need. I haven’t been feeling well. I always feel worn out in the summer. If I had the money, I’d come to see you. But I’d have to win the lottery first. For the umpteenth time: Did you get the $20 I sent a month ago?
Please answer this time, Akerman’s mother writes. But at least in the film, Akerman never does. To the end, she maintains a silence that, coming someday from my son, I would find unbearable. Yet this silence does not strike me as purely hostile. Perhaps Akerman never says anything because she is too absorbed in the act of looking.
Describing News from Home’s distinct quality of attention stumps me every time that I watch. But I would like to look at what’s before me in the way Akerman does, equanimous in the face of all that vacancy and rush. I would like to look and go on looking with that degree of alertness. Most of the takes are static, and when the camera does move, Akerman films aboard a ferryboat or a train or in a car. She remains at the mercy of her circumstance, only able to watch whatever’s coming or already there.
I say all this now. But when I am watching, thoughts like these almost never occur to me. I am mostly absorbed—is this embarrassing to admit?—in searching for my father. I scan the faces of people at the end of the workday, leaving buildings not far from his union headquarters. Or I watch passengers slouching on the subway, crammed in side by side. Each time the train stops, I wait to see who will step aboard. He won’t. But suppose that in another moment, he enters the frame.
My father does not know I am married now, nor that in March 2020, my son, Elias, was born. I haven’t seen him in 10 years. I have only a vague sense of where he lives. I think he still sells cars, though—as, starting in high school, he has done all his life, with one exception. In the late ‘70s, when he was 21 or 22, he flew to New York to work as a union organizer. By then, he had already left San Francisco to live in Nebraska, where his plans for himself had proven impossibly far-fetched. In moving farther east, he was following what has always struck me as a flimsy lead: a friend of a friend had promised that a job awaited him in Manhattan. In the months it took to materialize, he worked the graveyard shift as a parking lot attendant.
In all, he spent six years organizing, living the whole time in a tiny garden-view apartment in the Bronx. A few years before I was born, he returned to California and went back to selling cars, in a reversion that follows an arc Adrienne Rich describes:
In those years, people will say,
we lost track of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves reduced to I
My father had a sense—he must have—however tenuous, of a meaning of we. But in his reduction to I, he lost coherence. He is not anomalous in this; I think it is the cost of that reduction. Anyway, by the time I could ask him about this period of his life, he seemed mystified.
I remember hearing about the heartbreak he felt watching nurses scab many months into a strike, and the brass knuckles he took to carrying in his jacket pocket at night, to use when he got jumped. I can’t tell you all my stories right now, he used to say. I have to save some to tell you when you’re older. Maybe whatever else he might have said I was too young to hear, or he’d just grown tired of talking. But the stories he did tell all seemed oddly thin. I lack any real sense of what drew and kept him there.
So I am left to imagine. I know I romanticize these years of his life. But I can permit myself that. Here is what I want to say. When my father worked as an organizer, he refused to accept whatever happened to be on offer—refused to believe we must mortgage our lives, and gladly, conceding the matter of our fundamental separateness. He refused to avow that it was already too late, that time had run out. The present world is not, it cannot be, all that we can desire.
A crowd crosses an intersection, everyone hurrying, in Midtown now, toting briefcases, their black and beige suit jackets folded over their arms. Some of them notice the woman filming at a distance and stare. Others seem indifferent, or oblivious. Often their faces are hidden by the shade buildings cast or are too distant or fast-moving to see. If you thought you recognized someone, you would have to pause the film to make sure. A mustached man in a checkered sportscoat embraces a prim woman and, both of them smiling, he keeps his arm around her, hugging her shoulder, as if to guide her somewhere. A balding man in a pocket protector pushes past whoever is nearby. Another woman sits on the sidewalk, her back against a building, her chin resting on her hand.
Last August, when Elias was not quite 5 months old, my wife Claire and I took him to a park that runs along the San Pablo Bay. We parked and pushed his stroller through a sparse eucalyptus grove. Elias hadn’t been sleeping and neither had we, and driving over we’d gotten mired in a petty argument. We were sitting at a picnic table by the water, deciding whether to turn back, when my phone rang.
It was my mother, calling to say that my father had been found unresponsive in his car and admitted to the intensive-care unit of a hospital 20 minutes away. When I called, a nurse asked if I wanted to be put through to my father’s room. Her tone of voice was hard to parse—a little wry, darkly amused. I had my mask yanked down under my chin and Elias was propped on my lap, sucking my hand, the little bony curve where my thumb rises off my wrist, because he was teething—his first teeth were about to come in. I stared at Claire, who stared back at me, and listened to the muffled clicking of the receiver in my ear and the faint, fluid cries of the sparrows and wrens in the trees. I had a fated feeling, I remember, a feeling like a premonition. And then I heard my father, his voice exactly as I remembered, asking me how I was.
He said he’d accidentally taken too much blood pressure medication and passed out in front of the house of the woman he’d been seeing. He spoke quickly, easily, as if confiding in me. We only talked for a few minutes. Where do you live now? he asked, and I told him. And what are you doing? He meant for work, but I didn’t understand. I mean, I said, I’m trying to figure out what’s going on.
Let me give you a way to get a hold of me, he said, before reciting a number I tapped into my phone. Alright, I love you! he cried, and hung up.
He’s been hallucinating, another nurse told me when I called back. All day he’d been talking to the woman he’d been dating, thinking she was in the room with him when in fact, while staying with her, he had grown erratic. He’d screamed and pounded on the bathroom door while she showered. She didn’t want to see him anymore. He thought his cat, Sherman, was in the room too, and that he could see himself in whatever was playing on the TV. Later that day, when my brother called, my father didn’t know who he was and tried to sell him a car. The white Buick, he said. That’s the car for you.
Back when I knew him, I used to wonder fairly regularly if he had gone insane. But now the doctor suspected something more situational and fleeting was going on. He had had a bad interaction with the blood pressure medication. Two days later, the charge nurse called to say he was much more rational and oriented, and that he’d told them whenever he was discharged, I would pick him up, since, he said, he would be staying with me.
I told his social worker how small our apartment was and about our baby, going into too much detail, as if she hadn’t dealt with this situation countless times before. I hadn’t given him my phone number when we talked. It’s been five months and I still haven’t called.
I would seek him out someday. This is what I’d always thought. Or he would contact me, or else time would run out. I had failed to account for this possibility—of an inconclusive episode, a blip.
Illegible graffiti covers the mint-green walls of the subway car. A guy with thick, square-framed glasses checks his watch. Another guy, just beside him, holds flowers wrapped in newsprint. The train is underground and whenever the lights flicker off, the screen dips into total dark. The camera is positioned at the back of the car and shows two rows of seats, and, through the gangway, the other cars ahead. They all wag and rock, aligning to form a shifting passageway. For as long as we watch, no one speaks. Finally, a woman stands and a man turns and they both wait to disembark, staring straight ahead. The train screeches, slows. And then the doors slide open.