Home > Essays > Kandahar: A Memoir
Published: Fri Apr 15 2005
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Kandahar: A Memoir

December 2001

Kandahar–New York. The local papers marveled at the serendipity that had brought a celebrated playwright not only to cobble together a play set in Afghanistan, and that just prior to the events of September eleventh, but to come up—even—with a one-liner about the Taliban heading for New York. It was Kabul though that was the city of the play, and compared to the sacred city of Kandahar, it was secularity itself. I had done the playwright one better, then, in that “Kandahar” was the name sacred to me. That I should be writing this fantasia—but is it one?—of Kandahar in New York on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles, the very itinerary of the eleventh, inspires a mild shudder. What it might inspire in my fellow passengers were they to look at this page, written how many thousands of feet aloft, I can only imagine. Happily,my left hand lies over the page; surely no one will read me.

One does not write in order to go unread, however, so allow me to dispel the mystery. Kandahar may be a name sacred to me; it may even be linked, for the New Yorker I remain at heart, to a section of lower Manhattan not far from the site of what would be first the World Trade Center, then Ground Zero. But my Kandahar had nothing to do with religion, or at least with Islam. Though it had a whiff of the transcendent about it. Some fifty years ago,my father, eager to reward an overachieving son, or perhaps merely to add a dash of style to his otherwise drab wardrobe, took me to a Lower East Side sweater wholesaler named Kandahar. As the owner of a dry goods store uptown, he was generally familiar with the turf. His life, it seemed to me, was largely devoted to pleasing others, and the most common form taken by his will to please was the emergency afternoon dash to the Lower East Side to find the girdle, bra, or whatever, of just the size requested by the customer that morning, but, alas, nowhere to be found in the jumble of boxes through which he, or his sales help, would desperately rifle. The item was promised by nightfall (the store closed at 9 p.m.), and thus began the dash downtown. In the hit-and-run descents on Maidenform or Warner, I was the lookout. My job was to sit in the double-parked Olds and ward off any cops—with my mere presence, like a pudgy scarecrow— who might be inclined to issue a ticket. It was God-awful boring, but managed to leave at least one lasting impression worth noting. WQXR—nothing but the best for this overachiever—was my one relief from tedium. And particularly Mozart, since I did not yet have the dumb courage to rebel against the boxiness, as Updike put it, of so much classical music, the decorative symmetries that led Shaw to speak of much of what preceded Wagner as so much wallpaper for the ear. So I sat there absorbing Mozart, or rather putting him to use: making him the medium that would allow me to choreograph the chaotic street scene before my eyes into a kind of ballet performed by anxious Jewish wholesalers, indifferent Puerto Rican street vendors, kids in search of a stretch of uncluttered asphalt on which to play ball, and anyone else who might enter the magic of my—that is, Mozart’s—ken. All before Peter Sellars even dreamed of setting Don Giovanni, was it?, in a New York shooting gallery.

And all the while, I performed my job well. No tickets were issued. Which may have been another reason I was taken that day to Kandahar, where neither my father nor I had ever been before. The sweater I emerged with was a dark green affair, which I wore, and kept wearing for many years after. But my attachment to it had less to do with style than with the circumstances under which it was acquired. When the time came to pay the agreed-on price, the men from Kandahar asked to be excused as they repaired to the back room. When they emerged, it was to inform my father that they had just checked his credit rating in the good book, the Dunn and Bradstreet credit guide, and that having ascertained that his rating was “triple A plus,” they regarded it a matter of honor for all concerned, no, of religion, that he allow this sweater to serve to initiate his credit account with Kandahar.

Who would have expected that the merchant, an indifferent student for all his youth, should emerge summa cum laude from that encounter on the Lower East Side? And that he should do so in a kind of surprise ceremony staged in the presence of his son? It was the green not of Islam but of my father’s honor that I wore all those years in the form of a shaggy wool sweater from Kandahar. I remember sweating later that afternoon as we stopped for a bra on—was it Ludlow Street? A crew of Yeshiva bukhers—the phrase is Yiddish for taliban, but who knew?— seemed to prance across the street to the strains of Così fan tutte. I was proud.


The fall of Kandahar, my own private Kandahar, did not occur until many years later. It was precipitous and brutal. The circumstance, for all its sadness, was banal. I recount it only for the sake of its bizarre conclusion.

My mother had recently died, and, still grieving, I arrived for the first time with my young family (our daughter was five) at the home above the store on 84th Street that my mother’s hospitality had graced for so many years. She had died but weeks before.

It was on that occasion that my father brought me into his—their— bedroom, sat me down on what my mother, in a wise gaffe, used to call her “chaise lounge,” and informed me that he had taken up with a new woman, none other than my mother’s “best friend” of years past, and that he was now considering moving with her to her home in southern California. I had returned home in a gingerly effort to reclaim my past, now bereft of its central presence, and was told that that home was to be dissolved eagerly—and for good. My shock was total. I raised my hands in a gesture that acknowledged the tottering world around me, the years accumulated, and asked:“What happens to all this?” Kandahar fell with my father’s response:“So that’s it. You’re only interested in the money.” I walked out and, with the exception of one lawyerly visit, did not see him for the next eight years.


A reconciliation of sorts came much later. Children need a grandfather, and the man who would have everything was prepared to put up even with a son who had seen through him in order to have the grandchildren he believed he deserved. And he rose to the occasion, with rather spectacular spikes in his grandfatherly skills coinciding with the first bouts of his second wife’s Alzheimer’s. Indeed it was as though the more she forgot, the more he appeared to remember what I had hoped he would never cease to be. Yet the drama of the fall of Kandahar, as I continued to think of it, continued to simmer beneath the surface. How could he have thought what he pretended to think on that fateful afternoon? It was as though he had staged an imaginary offense in order the better to be able to walk away, to impose on his son the divorce he had never, it appeared to me, had the gumption to ask of my mother, his wife.

Still, that was all speculation. What was needed was less an explanation of his plaint than a refutation. That occasion came my way during the summer of 2001, in my fifty-seventh year, during a visit to the spectacular travertine expanse of the new Getty Center, high on the intersecting ridges of two hills north of Los Angeles. With the passage of time, it had become possible to visit the museum, that is, to secure parking without prior reservation. And so it was that on a fine August afternoon, my wife,my father, and I climbed into his 1987 Cadillac and went for a visit.

One was astonished straightaway by the framed views of ocean and city, the rare luxury of a travertine balcony in the sky. But one was similarly surprised by just how accommodating the place was. Wheelchairs made the trek up and down walkways, from pavilion to garden to framed prospect, amenable to the aged, and my father was certainly game. And thus it was that I had my Getty-inspired exercise regimen prescribed for an afternoon.

It was not easy work, wheeling two hundred pounds and more of paternity up and down the ramps, and the inspirational uplift provided by the collection, most strikingly in the nineteenth century, alleviated the burden only slightly. It was the framed views of valley, city, and ocean that drew one on.

It was not until after I had left Room 202 in the West Pavilion, a room so generally undistinguished that it went unmentioned in the official brochure, that things began, once again, to click. A generally forgettable nineteenth-century painting by a little known Englishman had jolted me unexpectedly. Might it have been the subject? It was called “Mercy” and showed the young David ostentatiously sparing the life of a reclining King Saul. Specifically, the young hero orders his aide not to run the sleeping monarch through with a spear. I was familiar with Gide’s treatment of the same motif, which I had attended to some years back in a book on antisemitism. For Gide—but was it Biblical too?— David was interested above all in demonstrating to Saul that he had no designs on his life. So having come upon Saul asleep in a cave, he clipped off a piece of the King’s robe, in order to be able to show, later on, that had he wanted to kill Saul, nothing would have prevented him, since the snatch of cloth from the royal robe demonstrated clearly that David had not lacked an opportunity.

The painting, by way of the recollection out of Gide, bore the strangest of kinetic fruit a mere five minutes later. As I strained to wheel my father up the travertine—no, as I struggled to prevent him from rolling too quickly down the travertine and into the panorama—it occurred to me that here was my long-awaited chance to release him, that is, not to release him, into the multihued glory of a southern California sunset. David, that is, was I. Or rather would be, if I could imagine my father, now 86, reacting to my phantasmagoria with anything other than a mixture of confusion and annoyance.

So I filed the fantasy in some pocket of my narcissism and proceeded to reward myself for this newfound combination of erudition and virtue by accepting my father’s generosity in hosting my wife and me in a delectable dinner overlooking the very sunset from which my aching wrists had spared him.

Erudition? There remained my embarrassing ignorance of the painter who had so effectively scripted my trip to the Getty. It was, in fact, a month or two later, in Boston, that I decided to remedy that ignorance. The words “Saul David Getty,” typed into the oblong box provided by my search engine, quickly revealed that the painter who had so flattered my narcissism, so inured it to the claims of Oedipus—but what was psychoanalysis, I would occasionally tell my class, if not the conviction that we are, all of us, condemned to act out both myths simultaneously?—the painter was one Richard Dadd.

And then came the revelation. The painting had been executed in the Criminal Lunatic Department of Bethlehem Hospital, the asylum to which Dadd had been consigned in 1844 after murdering his father in a delusional fit. The painting, it was commonly agreed, was a brilliantly executed denial of a parricide that had actually taken place. And it was a painting I had declared my own. I may have been right to claim that Dadd’s David was I, but if so, I had identified with delusion itself. And whether he had known it or not, the retired merchant from 84th Street would have found in my apparent defense, against an accusation he had no doubt long since forgotten, the clinching argument for the prosecution.


I began these notes three days ago, on a Boston-Los Angeles flight, with a childhood recollection of Kandahar in New York. I write now on the return flight after tending to my father, who even as I write lies semi-comatose, apparently dying, in a cheerful Encino hospital, of pneumonia. Barely had I arrived in his Encino apartment when I was summoned to the intensive care unit by a supervising nurse intent on persuading, no, badgering me into giving my father up. Time to let him go, I thought, but the thought immediately translated into a strain in my wrists, and I held on—as at the Getty. Richard Dadd may have called his painting “Mercy,” but its legend of a death forestalled was palpably a relic of an age before mercy killings.

I had fortunately read my father’s “living will” on the plane to California and was certain that it would take more than an impatient nurse—the stipulation was two doctors—before I could envisage shutting down the ample congeries of tubes and machines that appeared to be sustaining him.

Or was it that oldest of counsels, imparted to me by him in my childhood: “If anything happens to me, head first to the safety deposit box”? Was I the one who had gotten things precisely wrong this time? Might I have been keeping him alive—to the point of what the nurse regarded as torture—for the sake of the money? And all out of strict fidelity to his oldest teaching.

Fortunately, he weathered the crisis of that first night in Encino. Moreover, a newly administered antibiotic would need time to work. Early the next morning, I called David, a childhood friend who was none other than the son of my father’s second wife. He is a prominent epidemiologist and was generously riding herd over the crew of doctors attending to my father. He confirmed me in my resisting the hectoring nurse, reminded me that in California’s youth culture the presumption that only the young have a right to live had issued in some particularly nasty medical habits.

Richard Dadd’s painting again loomed before me. Supine Saul, with his bin Laden beard and turban, was still my father, whose name, have I said so?, is in fact Saul. But Dadd’s David had modulated into my friend David, instructing his robed aide to lay down his spear (or was it her syringe?) and spare Saul’s life. I was out of the picture, as medicine frequently prefers it for the uninitiated, but the picture had only grown in hallucinatory accuracy.

Soon, I realize, my father too will be out of the picture. May that moment, when it comes—when? my plane lands in Boston in less than an hour and I dread the news—serve as a bond, both of us “out of the picture,” as compelling as the one we knew a half-century ago that afternoon at Kandahar in New York.

See what's inside AGNI 61

Jeffrey Mehlman, a literary critic and historian of ideas, is University Professor and Professor of French Literature at Boston University. His most recent books include Walter Benjamin for Children: An Essay on His Radio YearsEmigré New York: French Intellectuals in Wartime Manhattan, 1940-1944; and a memoir, Adventures in the French Trade: Fragments toward a Life. (updated 10/2012)

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