Unfinished

 

IMG_2085 (1)The monument is like a ship, a big black marble ship you walk in, can look up to see the buildings that scar the sky, and forward, to see the semicircle of marble where there are symbols.  Symbols of various good ideas, from various African cultures, and a crescent moon, and a cross.  I was alone.  I was alone, I couldn’t see any other people.

It was on the my list of things to see, to distract myself from the fact that I have no job and am about to run out of money: the African Burial Ground.

Being alone in Manhattan is a strange and wondrous thing.  I only remember it happening a few places: once or twice in the teacher’s lounge at my old school, and once in a deeply tucked-in dead-end room at the Met.

Cinema has taught us to be alone in Manhattan is also to know the apocalypse.  How it might be to be really alone, not feel alone or seem alone.

I was alone, though, wholly alone, well, with whatever is left of 15,000 people who had been buried there because they were black.

Most of the parks you could name in Manhattan used to be cemeteries for the poor: Bryant Park, Union Square, Washington Square.  In Washington Square park, perhaps 20,000 dead.  What should it be?  How long could you nod at the dead?

When you are from a newer place, a place relatively undisputed, as places go, it seemed to me history might be thoughtful, progressive.  Were there Indians in Kansas?  Oh, there were.  A long time ago.

At first New Amsterdamians and New Yorkers of all backgrounds were buried together.  Then, in 1697, the church where I worshipped this morning (well, its ancestor self) banned black people from being buried within the city limits of New York.

During the Revolutionary War, the British held New York City, making it a magnet for escaped slaves.  Before the revolution, almost all blacks in New York were slaves.  Afterward, only 2/3 of them were.

The freeing came in fits and starts.  Ultimately it was July 4, 1827, when all slaves in New York were freed, no matter when they had been born, or to whom they were enslaved.

When I visited Dr. King’s home in Atlanta, I was disturbed to see how few white people were there.  I wondered how many white people visited this monument.  We were all saved from slavery, we all live under its shadow still, and we all require encouragement to mourn and honor our past and hope for better.

Anyway I was alone at the African burial ground site, with no one to dislike for not being there.  It was a hot that could be held by not moving too fast.

I went uptown.  I got a cookie and sat in the one-floor-below-ground garden of the former Whitney.  It isn’t really a garden.  It’s an outside place to sit, where the heavy jutting outness of the building shaded us so fully that when the traffic and wind sound became rain sound, we could only see it against the face of the brick building across the street.  “I think we’re all right here,” I said to the woman who had sat next to me.  She had an Italian accent and was also eating a cookie.  She nodded.  We watched the rain far below our brown granite awning.

It is a building I at first hated, the first time I visited, when I was eighteen.  I came to find it warm, the way Frank Lloyd Wright wanted the Guggenheim to be, and human-sized, and digestible.  Its cubby windows, its mini village snuggled in the stairwell.

The building has recently gone from being as cool as the Whitney is to as uncool as the Met is.  The guards are now in their dress blues, the whole system is on the Met system.  The building is now part of the Met, New York’s aircraft-carrier sized cathedral, rather than the Whitney, who moved downtown to wave in the whole overexpensiveness of contemporary art with a restaurant for people who want to be seen there, not a cafeteria with kids’ meals or an atrium full of footworn tourists wearily looking at their phones waiting for someone they know to marathon it through another half mile of paintings  and mummy cases.

Unfinished was the show at this new-christened place, Met Breuer.

DP363719Jasper Johns’ paint-by-number target: he created it, you complete it.  Never completed.  Never to be.  Until that apocalypse day you are alone in Manhattan and you find the glass smashed and you take it out.  And paint, careful or sloppy, all yours.

DT356183.jpgAndy Warhol’s paint-by-number, a violin half done politely and half done comically.

Macchi_2003.91-5.jpgPerhaps my favorite: a film that has an introductory card (A Film by) and then a countdown, 5…4…3…2…1…1/2…1/4….  I stopped and chuckled, and then I waited and watched other people watch it and get puzzled or disappointed but no one laughed so I didn’t like anyone else in the gallery.  It was funny, it was funny, nothing happens, you see, nothing ever happens, things just get smaller and recycle themselves.

Old paintings, funny to see in that space as you are not used to seeing the Madonna and Christ treated properly in that space, only mocked and rehashed there, in the moderns, the contemporaries, but with the Met’s paintings there, you can see how some painters began loving or at least respectful paintings of them and stopped, for one reason or another, who knows.  Portraits of the rich without faces, perhaps they were not paid for, faces.

DT2780.jpgA Whistler with the suggestions that show what it is like to be somewhere without being there at all, how people move away from you without moving.

IA-Antwerp RH_S_181_Foto002.jpgA painting of horses I drew into, and moved like horse, horses in a battle that shows how real and unreal battle is, how real and unreal enemies, friends, because it is unfinished, not on purpose, by happenstance.

Images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show, “Unfinished”:

  • Jasper Johns, “Target”
  • Andy Warhol, “Do It Yourself (Violin)”
  • Jorge Macchi, “La Fleche de Zenon”
  • Anton Raphael Mengs, “Portrait of Mariana de Silva y Sarmiento, duquesa de Huescar”
  • Perino del Vaga (Pietro Buonaccorsi), “Holy Family with St. John the Baptist”
  • James McNeil Whistler, “Cremorne Gardens, No. 2”
  • Peter Paul Rubens, “Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry”

 

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Shelter

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Completed in 1895, the 23rd Regiment Armory is a Romanesque red brick armory.  Armories were originally important places to train and store weapons for America’s locally-based military units before the Civil War.  During industrialization, National Guard troops were used to quash labor protests.  After World War I, bronze tributes to soldiers from that conflict were added.  The building was rented by William Randolph Hearst to house a studio he owned in the 1920s.  Today, like several other century-old armories in New York City, it is used as a homeless shelter.  I went past it every day I took the express, instead of the local, bus to work.

 

They leave

without: shields,

shields, or anything sharp,

bronzes above,

bronzes of

soldiers who won,

(where do we keep the guns?  the pieces?)

Soldiers who won above

men losing,

Where we kept our guns,

where soldiers kept safe,

where men rallied to crush

strikes and stop rowdy wanting,

where we keep the empty.

They rifle.

Turrets at altitude

above attack,

the men who are

never above

the ground floor

these men,

at eye level,

or lower, foot traffic level,

cardboard sign,

subway piss,

but with souls,

across the street the gas

station where the money

and the delivery drivers

gas up.

(Where do we keep

the guns?

our heat?

our pieces?)

My favorite site for more details on armories.

Image: New York Public Library.

The Library

UnknownThe ceiling of the Library of Congress is embossed with aluminum.  Aluminum, the tour guide tells us, was a precious metal.  Once.

On the top there is a torch.  Torches are prominently featured.  As are: Minerva, owls, and women showing or unshowing one or both of their breasts, it varies a great deal.  Minerva has a sword.

The first Library was burned.  The second Library burned.  Now, rather than much of a library for Congress, it is a book fetish place on the mall.  For the second time, I got a reader card.  I would call it a library card.  Proof of book fetish, merely, I wasn’t going to read anything there.  Libraries, in fact, I love and fear, because I don’t check out books anymore unless I have an in.  I can’t be trusted with library books.  I have dug myself holes.  The government employees at the get-your-card office are deeply unimpressed with your desire for a card, just ignore the warnings that this is NOT A SOUVENIR.

What people do is create libraries, and then those libraries are burned or dispersed.  Three-quarters of my library has languished in a Lenexa, Kansas storage unit for two years, twenty-four months.  I never thought I could live without it.

The Library was the first building in Washington, DC to be completely electrified, and people used to go there to see the sight.  They also installed gas.  Once the electricity fad passed, they could crank up the gas lights like regular people.

Thomas Jefferson’s books, the ones that survived the second fire, are preserved in a swoop of an almost circle, glass on both sides, so you can see both sides, the spines are on the inside, labeled by subject, and the outside is all their pages, some of them dizzyingly marbled, blue and cream or burgundy and cream.

Aluminum was, in the beginning, so precious that royalty had one set of aluminum fork, knife and spoon for the honored guest, and the others had to use gold.

Were books your company?  When weren’t they?  When have you felt lonely, away from your book, and worse when you had to stop and realized how one-sided your relationship had been with the book.  Hadn’t it been?  When did you know the complete hollowness of not having any book you wanted badly to reenter?  Did the books you read pay any attention to you?  Did they respond at all?  Did they light up?

Jefferson sold his library to Congress.  He thought they could use them, sure, but also he needed the money.

The last day of school, I ended up sitting and chatting a long time with a student.  He told me he wished his dad would teach him how to pray.  I told him if he didn’t end up a neurologist, he could still work in medicine.  He might change his mind, and that would be okay.  I told him to read Atul Gawande.  Do you know anyone who’s gone to medical school? No.  I told him to go to the Natural History Museum, he had never been there, I told him it was free, really, just give them a dollar, they let you in.  Go see the dinosaurs.  Maybe I will, today, Ms Schurman, maybe I will.

Heavy

photo 4 (2)When the 3 train is not running, the 4 train goes on the 3 train track, and stops at the 3 train stops.  You might think it was the 3 train, but there is that number 4 and it is in a green circle instead of a red one.   It is a 4 train behaving like a 3 train.  See.

Yesterday I happened to be downtown.  As I got off the subway, I was hoping no one bombed Wall Street,  There is much security there, and, what with my disgruntlement with capitalism, it would be too much irony for me to be caught in anti-capitalist action.  I don’t like capitalism!  I’ve never been good at it!

I went to one of my favorite spots down there, Fraunces Tavern.  You can have a drink where George Washington drank.  You can wonder if you should order madeira or American whiskey or what, and just get a nice Malbec instead.  Every other time I’ve been there it’s been past closing time for their museum.  Yesterday I finally got up there.

photo 3 (4)They have a piece of Washington’s tooth (well, his dentures), a lock of his hair, the room where he gave his farewell retirement speech that wasn’t really a retirement speech because he came back to be president.  You can’t take photos in that room, oddly.   There was a nice video about the various important colonial meetings held there, and the buildings rehab in the early 20th century.  It’s about as old as museums get. They have a lot of maps, of The New World, of the West Indies, of the Philippines.   I wish maps were more useful.

photo 5 (3)I went on to Federal Hall, just around the corner.   Washington took the oath of office on that spot.  The building is a different one, but they have the cracked piece of marble he stood on.  And part of the railing.  And the Bible he used to be sworn in.  And a big ol’ statue of him for people to take pictures in front of.

After Washington was sworn in, he went to pray at St. Paul’s.  I had been confused about the two old churches downtown.  Trinity Church is stained glass and good darkness and some side altars and chapel.  St. Paul’s is actually older.  Trinity burned down and had to be rebuilt.  So Washington had to go to Trinity after he was sworn in.  Trinity Church now is pink and blue and lots of displays about September 11th.  It was the place a lot of rescue workers were fed and housed.

George Washington.  Jefferson is smart sexy, Adams is nutty sexy, Lincoln is king of brooding suffering (super sexy), but there’s nothing sexy about George Washington.  Indeed a Founding Father.  It isn’t just the weird teeth.

At the Smithsonian they have a giant sculpture of George Washington as a Roman god, in a toga and all.  It seems people didn’t know what to do with this guy who was both bold and conservative and careful.  Ballsy enough to join a revolution and lead its forces, conservative in approaching the job of president, in giving it up after two terms.

Lower Manhattan was heavy before September 11th.  I didn’t spend a lot of time down there, but I know the air was heavier with history, the streets were heavier, the buildings were heavier, streets narrower, the fog was heavier, and remains so.   All the bankers make things heavier.  They wear heavy suits, and money is heavy.  And September 11th it got heavier.

George Washington is the only Founding Father I can’t imagine as a lawyer buying me drinks and getting handsy with me at Fraunces Tavern.  Blame Paul Giamatti.  Everyone does.

I really like the heaviness.  Notre Dame is also heavy.  Might be the heaviest place I’ve ever been.  I never wanted to leave.  Much heavier than St. Peter’s, way heavier than St. Paul’s.

People go take their photo with the bull.  That day, there was a snowman in front of the bull.  I don’t know what that was about.

‘There’s that word again: heavy.  Why are things so heavy in the future?  Is there a problem with the earth’s gravitational pull?”

I took the real 4 train home.

You know you are pulled to certain places certain times?  Earlier in the week I had gone to Trinity Church.  I had had an awful day, and I knew that church was both open and on the way home.  I sat on the back steps and talked to a friend on the phone.  There was still snow on the ground, but it was so warm I could be out there in the well, not fresh, exactly, but outside air.

I went inside the church and sat a long time.  A choir was practicing in the sanctuary.  I sat in the side chapel where they have a Christ looking a little clean for my taste.  He is holding the whole world in his hands.

I sat for a while and felt awful and wondered why things happened I had to wrestle with and puzzle out, so much effort in figuring things out, deliberating, when there is so much just straight-up work work to do, in the world, in my life.  But it’s necessary to try to figure shit out.  Why things happen, what people mean, what you can affect and not affect, what was your fault, what you should have done, and what wasn’t your fault and could not have been steered around.  And the Jesus looking like he had it all under control, maybe he did.  I’m more a fan of the “don’t worry about it” style Jesus.  More “I’ve got this” like “I’ve got your emotional problems, but not necessarily The Middle East or Cancer.”

Across the street from Trinity Church is the real 4 train, the real one on the green circle, that goes near my house but not closest to it, anyway, it gets there faster.