Very Small Things

As the lesson said, “mustard seed,” I thought there must be smaller things than that, things so small that is the size of the faith that I have, like, perhaps a speck of dust.  Last night I was taking the train home and suddenly realized that I had no money, and would never have any money again.

Then I played this game I like, which is, I need something/what do you need?  Feeling poor (as opposed to actually being poor, which I am not) is about thinking there is something that would make you happy, you just can’t afford it.

This game worked well, as the 4 train stopped and went and stopped and went along back to Brooklyn.  I couldn’t figure out what I wanted that I couldn’t have it seemed like I actually had what I wanted.

I had spent the evening watching a documentary about the New York pavilion from the 1964 World’s Fair.  Many people have tried to protect and preserve the flying saucers on sticks that sit in Queens, patiently rotting.

The documentary was shown at City Reliquary, a place that was on my list of spots to visit in the city.  When I walked in, a woman with nicely curled hair said, “Welcome, admission is free,” and I walked through a turnstile for no apparent reason but the love of turnstiles.

Among the incredibly adorable things they have are:

  • a dancing mannequin in tribute to Little Egypt, the famous burlesque dancer, and a (formerly) nearby theater founded by Fanny Brice
  • samples of soil from each of the five boroughs
  • a pretend wedding cake from a beloved Mexican bakery now out of business
  • rocks collected at Rockaway Beach
  • a listening station to hear “The Bridge” by Sonny Rollins, surrounded by information about the Williamsburg Bridge, which inspired the piece
  • pieces of stone from famous building of New York: the Waldorf Astoria, the Guggenheim
  • a hammer labeled “very old hammer”

The hammer was my favorite.

Earlier in the week, I had been to the Met’s exhibit about Jerusalem.  (For the bargain price of $1.)  They had stained glass windows, marble carvings, gold trays, Bibles and prayer books and Korans, it was all beautifully done.  It didn’t move me nearly as much as the grubby City Reliquary, though.

They did have two manuscripts written in Maimonedes’s own hand, as the label said, and that blew my mind.  In one of them, he is raising money to ransom people who have been kidnapped.  In his own hand.

Six years ago, I went into a junk shop in Iowa City and found this little bronze Arab-looking guy sitting cross-legged, and I loved him, and bought him, and took him home, and then I figured out he was Maimonides.  Maimonides is a strange person for me to love, since he is most known for his interest in the law and science, two areas which aren’t exactly my greatest passions.

After church I took the train to coffee, and on the way, I, and many of my fellow New Yorkers, had to walk a million miles under the Fulton Street station because  not only is the 3 train not running today, the A and the C and the 1 are not running, either.

When I finally got on a train, there was this foursome standing next to me, four adults and a baby I was making eyes at, they were trying to figure out how to get to 96th Street, they had taken the train downtown to get uptown, which is the worst thing in the world except taking it from Brooklyn to Manhattan to get to Brooklyn again.  “The weekend train is so awful, especially today,” I said, and then I chatted with one of the ladies.  “You just gotta have patience, what else can you do?”

We chatted a while until the guy with her tried to interrupt, and she said, “Excuse me, I’m talking to this nice lady.”

Then I told her to have a nice afternoon, and I got off at 14th Street, and I felt like I had what I needed.

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Small Animals

13625378_10208590462653305_9197893018731847063_nI thought Sardi’s was a tourist trap.  And I thought I could not afford it.  My way of going to see Broadway shows has always been to eat a slice of pizza beforehand, because after paying for a ticket that is all that seems prudent.

I happened to be meeting a friend in Times Square, though, it is halfway between us, and I thought of Sardi’s.  It was lunch, maybe we could swing it for lunch.

The waiters had jackets, the walls were the caricatures, and were the red I think a restaurant should be.  All restaurants should have red walls.  Except Greek restaurants, which should have white ones, and Mexican restaurants, which should be yellow.  The ceiling had acoustic tile, which reminded me this was a real place.

Amazing places are also real, hard to absorb, but true.  The pyramids in Egypt are, I guess, a real place.  I know the Louvre is real.  It was hard for me to believe it, though, when I was there.

We ate and had a good chat.  It was a late lunch, and there were only three tables of us left, the place had cleared out from the Wednesday matinee crowd.

“He’s in the bar area,” our waitress said to the couple next to us.

“Excuse me, who were you asking about?” my friend asked, thank God, because I was trying to figure out how to get them talking.

“Her brother, Arthur Miller,” the man said.

Then I had a heart attack and couldn’t think what to say.

For six years, I taught The Crucible.  “Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer,” I thought, rather than “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another!” which would have been cool.

Every time I taught it, with my five sections of juniors– so that is thirty times I read it– I would stop there and say, “Why does he say that?  Does beer not freeze?”

The kids were in chemistry that same year, and usually there would be one kid who would explain, “Alcohol doesn’t freeze.”  It was a test to see who knew about chemistry, or about liquor, as a junior in high school.  “You can put a bottle of vodka in the freezer,” someone might say, and I would think, Well, that tells me something about you.

I did not know about the freezing point of alcohol when I was a junior in high school because I was a nerd.

I wanted desperately for Arthur Miller’s sister to begin telling us her life story and I would have sat rapt the entire time, but I couldn’t think what to ask because I was stuck on, Arthur Miller was a real person, with a sister, and Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer.

For the record, I don’t think anyone would say my justice would freeze beer.  I would say, the quality of mercy is not strained, it drops as the gentle rain from heaven, another dramatic quote that sticks with me, this one from driving past the words engraved in the sign at the public hospital next to where I worked.

Arthur Miller was a real person, not a saint, wait, saints were real people, too.  Once.

Arthur Miller’s sister is not her name.  What was her favorite play?  I managed to ask.  She is an actress.  “Between jobs,” I said; she chuckled.

Death of A Salesman,” she said.

Well, I would have to read that again.  It had been a long time.

My imagined Broadway in New York is the ’40s and ’50s, those shows, their clothes, good wool and high heels and clothes that gave women shape instead of them being expected to provide it, and small drinks, little wine glasses, little martini glasses, automats.  Everything drier and sleeker and smaller.

This isn’t to say I don’t love being here now, a woman who isn’t married and doesn’t have to be, with current Times Square, much more money, much more diverse, less provincial, less formal.  I love the people dressed in cartoon character costumes, now confined to blue-painted patches of the sidewalk so they don’t get in the way of we civilians.  I love the embarrassing capitalist mess of it.

Joan Copeland is her name, and she was one of the first members of the Actors Studio, along with, you know, Elia Kazan.

I’m glad I didn’t know this while chatting with her, I would have lost my shit even more.

I was conscious of not asking her about her brother, being a sibling to someone so famous must be kind of a drag.  “What was your favorite part?” we asked.

She talked about playing parts in soap operas.  Which reminded me of my favorite old man I ever met in New York, a retired violinist for the Met.  I met him at MoMA, and he told me about hanging out with Rothko (who was also a real person, I know), and when I asked him what his favorite opera was, he said, “The shortest ones.”  Work is work.  And I wasn’t sure how clear her thoughts or memories were, she’s of an age to have so many thoughts and memories they could get crowded and jumbled.

“Has Sardi’s changed?” we asked.

“Oh, no,” she said.  “I used to have that corner table every night,” she said.  “They saved it for me.”

“Wow,” I said.  I could also say that.

“When my brother was blacklisted, you couldn’t go eat in the restaurants if you were thought to be a liberal, you know, they said communist then, but a liberal, really.  Vincent not only let Arthur eat here, he would be out in the street and yell down to him, ‘Welcome, come on in.'”

I asked if I could take my picture with her, would she mind, she said no.  I sat next to her and she asked if she needed lipstick.  I said yes.  She pulled out her beautiful black satin clutch, fooled around in it for the lipstick and applied it to her bottom lip perfectly, looking into her palm as if it had a mirror in it but it did not.  Her fingernails were red, her blouse was just the right shape for her figure, her earrings dangled just below the length of her hair.

Someone mentioned men going bald, and she started singing, “A bald man…. don’t kiss a man/whose name you don’t know….  What song is that?”

We didn’t know.

“I usually think it’s a good idea,” I said, “but not always.”

She was in thirteen shows on Broadway, lots of soaps, and had bit parts on television and in movies.  She was an understudy for Vivien Leigh and Katharine Hepburn.  She knew Marilyn Monroe from the Actors Studio, but did not know Monroe was dating her brother.  (“I’m not much up on gossip,” she reportedly said.)

I walked down subway stairs in love with her, “I am in love with her,” I thought, which made me start singing, in my head, “I’m in love/ I’m in love/I’m in love/I’m in love….”  That is maybe my favorite show.

I would rather, actually, meet Joan Copeland than Arthur Miller.  Most of us artists are small animals, the squirrels and sparrows of the art world, not lions like Arthur Miller.  We’re all related, though, all in that family, and it was lovely to meet a grandmother.

Merchant’s House

I turned the hottest corner in the world and almost walked past the 1832 home of only one family, ever: the Tredwells.

I would like to put in, here, that it is the oldest something or other, but that isn’t really the point of the place.  It is very old for a surviving building in Manhattan, and it is preserved with a lot of its original stuff inside it.

There is a buzzer to press, which is your first indication that no one goes there, especially on the hottest days of the year, but probably other days, too.  Someone buzzed me in, and I made that transformation you make from being anyone on the street to someone inside somewhere, accepted and on a mission.  Also it was slightly cooler inside.  Slightly.

I followed the hallway to its other end, and a small room was repurposed to sell tickets and also to house a collection of breakable this and that dishes and figures and a book about opera.  These items were for sale to benefit the house, and it was easy to imagine little old ladies carting them in in cardboard boxes, wrapped in newspaper.

I paid the lady, and the nice man and I agreed that Friday had been the worst of the heat, Saturday was better, and Sunday, that day, was the best, meaning Friday and Saturday had been hellfire punishing, and today was just extremely hot.  The people of New York’s smaller museums are a kind and grateful people.

“So, how did you hear about this place?” the tour guide asked.  She seemed genuinely surprised– maybe even suspicious– that we had all decided to tour a lightly air-conditioned historic house on a Sunday in August.

Two of us explained we had been to the big museums of New York and were working on the small ones.  A couple from Brazil said they had heard about the house on a Brazilian TV show.

“Well, right when everyone is paying attention to Brazil!”

I hoped they were airbnbing the shit out of their place back there.

I took the tour: basement family room and kitchen, main floor parlor and dining room with gorgeous gas chandeliers, upstairs adult bedrooms, and past the floor for childrens’ bedrooms, now the museum offices.

“They wanted to memorialize the merchant class,” our tour guide said, and I couldn’t figure why anyone wanted people to remember their class.  Their class?  Merchants?  New money that either got rich or fell off?

The top floor, the servants’ quarters, was much like the servants’ quarters of my mansion, both in the house, and my own home in the carriage house.  The cut-out windows, slanted ceiling.  It’s my favorite place I’ve lived.

They play up their ghost stories, one of our tour group asked about them.  “I haven’t seen one,” the tour guide said.  “But people see them, especially Hugo.  All the other children got their settlement in the father’s will, but Hugo got his in small payments over many years.”

Understood.

I also liked that the family were loyalists, like my ancestors.  The Tredwells were loyalists and people so attached to the past, so loving of the past, that when other families left the neighborhood, they said no, and stayed and stayed.  Seabury Tredwell, the patriarch, continued to wear his hair in a ponytail long after this was not cool (like an early ’90s ponytail, shiver), and when his commissioned portrait was delivered to his widow, she said, “No, he must have his ponytail,” and the artist painted it in.  You think you’re doing someone a favor.

They kept a lot of their junk, and the tour guide praises this, as historians will.  My mother is currently in the process of cleaning out her basement, and let me tell you, no one praises you for keeping your junk while you are alive.  There is this dark area that is just “old” between “new” and “how interesting.”  The Tredwells left their sewing supplies, so we could see them, their thread, their cases for pins.  No one wants to see mine, which is in a Lancome bag given as a free gift from the Prairie Village Jones Store, okay, Macy’s.  I also like to live in the past.

There was one last Christmas we got presents put in Jones Store shirt boxes.  There must have been a last Christmas people got presents in Harzfeld’s boxes.  My step grandmothers’ hats are still in Herzfeld’s boxes.

“Why did the grown daughter not move out with her husband?” I asked.

“What happened to the merchant class?” I asked.

The tour guide, although kind and well-informed, could not definitively answer either question.

She did, as we two were the last to descend the stairs, say, quietly, “I don’t tell everyone this, but one of the daughters fell down these steps and broke her neck.”

“Whoa,” I said.  And then, “Thank you so much,” and I picked up my bag, and my coffee, from the small back office.

We were new money, my family.  We did not save everything, but we saved some things, and some went to the curb when the basement flooded.  The Tredwell basement, it must never have flooded.  Who would remake our family room, circa 1985, when I had a coat rack with Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo, and footprint outlines and measurements of inches and feet on the back so you could see how you grew?

Merchant’s House Museum

 

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.

Unisphere, Perisphere

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I didn’t go to Queens to see the Unisphere.  As I approached it, it opened and arched and bent different ways, and I stepped up and over the edge of what would hold in water, if it was summer, and walked under it, and there was a kite caught in one edge, near the Americas, and it broke me how pretty that was.

I walked over to the “Men in Black” towers, that is what they are to me, they were the New York state pavilion in 1964.  (Right across the path, coincidentally, was the Missouri pavilion, which showcased the Missouri space industry, whatever that was then.)

I knew the towers were neglected and awful, but they were worse than I had been imagining, or it felt worse to see them.  There is a theater now, hugging the towers, but the towers are nothing.  They are flaking apart.  I walked up to the fence around them, until I saw a police mobile unit.  I would guess it’s pretty hard to sneak in there and look around.  When I tried to get a touch closer, a cop asked me not to.  The towers used to be for observation, so you could look out at everything.  It’s strange that it is the New York state pavilion because New York City is only nominally in New York State, that is, it’s awkward for all of us that New York City is in New York state, since New York City is in so many ways its own little country of customs and language and people.

It made me think about broken and flaked away things that were inside me that I didn’t really want to think about, and I wished I hadn’t looked at it.

Behind the unisphere, now, is the Queens Museum.  It used to be the New York City pavilion.  Now it’s a Queens place.  The boroughs here have their own little museums, which are smaller and more provincial, in some ways, than museums in cities.  Brooklyn and Queens both have their own little zoos and botanical gardens, just to show that they can.  What the Queens Museum has, really, is the largest architectural model in the world, of course, since you are in New York City, it is of New York City, despite the fact that you could go someplace and look at the actual New York City, say, from Governor’s Island or the top of the Empire State Building, both great views, or from the Brooklyn Bridge, people come from all over to look at tiny pretend New York City.

It is a better view, fine, it is, but it still feels as crazy as here, where in spite of being told all the time how important we are, we also like to look at ourselves and trumpet ourselves, periodically.

During the World’s Fair, you rode a pretend helicopter down to see it, and was I sad I didn’t get to ride in a pretend helicopter, well, do you know me at all?

Now there is a series of ramps around it, which functions as a practical alternative.  Your first few steps are on glass, below you is a part of the Bronx no one cares about, the other parts that are glass are Queens and Staten Island (ditto).  Everyone stops to gaze across Manhattan, spoiled cradle of the city.  Count the streets.  People stop to find where they live, for me, the park, then up, then over.  Find where they work, for me, that is another park, another big one, pretty easy.  Find other parks, and watch, on fishing line, a tiny white airplane go up from LaGuardia, one up to Europe, I guess, and one over and up to the west, to everywhere else.  The trajectory is like when Tinkerbell flies from the top of Cinderella’s castle, suggested by Walt Disney on my mind.

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I studied the World’s Fair model under a dome of glass, which was upstairs, and found the Ford, General Electric, and Pepsi pavilions, those being the ones designed by Disney.

I thought I would be excited to see the World’s Fair stuff they had, but mostly it was crummy souvenirs people bought, with dumb pictures on them.  The model was more interesting, and sadder.  None of those things were there.  Not the girlie shows at the Louisiana pavilion, not the skyway, which I neglected to ride at Six Flags last year, not the Ford pavilion with drivers making figure 8s twenty-four hours a day, not President Coolidge’s pygmy hippo Billy, not Les Poupees de Paris, not the Pieta, which I couldn’t believe the Vatican thought was fit for travel, I mean, I guess it’s marble and tough, but if I owned the Pieta I would not let it out of my house, period.  Not the electric typewriters, not Better Living Through Chemistry, not Franklin Roosevelt and Albert Einstein giving a speech on televisions that had just barely been born.

So I thought it was sad.

I forgot to look at where the time capsule is buried, or the spot marking where the pope was, though I don’t care about popes.

When I was back in the city, walking from the subway to church, down St. John, across 6th Avenue, I knew how small I was in the model.  How I was speck in the tiny canyons, all of us were.

The other big piece at the museum is a model of the watershed, which does the absurd thing of showing us how the land that we live on works.  Not a building, not a street, not a sidewalk, not even a tree, only how our land is, under us, which we can’t notice or see, maybe only the cyclists can, do, the rest of us feel it so little, up or down, so little altitude here, apparently, though, it makes our water run, and the whole model, so much less visited and remarked on, shows what is here that makes us, more than the sprawl of our wonders, which we know.

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The Very End

photo-13On the way to work this brown bulldog was walking towards me, not on a leash, just all by himself, and he looked at me, and we passed each other, and I felt this dog was a demon or a god in disguise.

That afternoon I took a ferry from Manhattan to Brooklyn after being told by the receptionist that I had mistaken the date of my appointment.  After being sent back down the elevator.  After, I tapped on the building’s facade as I had been told to, by the building’s owner.  I had never had a man tell me a building was his.  “So we can’t do anything to the building without checking with the city,” he said, because the building belonged to Theodore Roosevelt, Senior, father of that Theodore Roosevelt you were thinking of, man who helped found the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was “a man of good works and good times.”  I don’t know how else a person would want to be described.

I found this website where you count penguins for scientists.  I clicked on penguins, one, two, three, or was that two?

The next day I took the subway to the very end of Manhattan.  I was supposed to do one thing up there, but I missed it, and so I just got off the train not knowing what else to do.  There was a gorgeous old sign above the platform that said, “Next Train” and had an arrow which would light up to show which side, downtown, uptown.  The last stop is 207th Street.  I walked a few more blocks and there was a bridge to the Bronx, the very tip of Manhattan.  The bridge looked rickety.  I walked across it, in one place you could see through the empty spaces in the iron all the way down to the Harlem River, although in the moment I thought of it only as The River, I didn’t know what it was when it bent, it, the Hudson, bent around between the Bronx and Manhattan.  I was finishing Another Country by James Baldwin, I think he’s the only other person in the world as angry as I am, and in the novel a man jumps off a bridge, but I couldn’t remember which one, probably the GWB.

When people no longer knew that a mystery could only be approached through form, people became– what the people of this time and place had become, what he had become.  They perished within their despised clay tenements, in isolation, passively, or actively together, in mobs, thirsting and seeking for, and eventually reeking of blood.  Of rending and tearing there can never be any end, and God save the people for whom passion becomes impersonal!

I finished Another Country later, at 5:58 PM.  Or so.  The last words are: Instanbul, Dec. 10, 1961.  Not of the novel, but of the book.

I thought I would go back downtown and see the Apollo theater, or maybe some place James Baldwin used to live.  I climbed the stairs to the train, which is not sub way there, and a man was standing at the top holding the door for some reason so I said thank you.

I could also see Grant’s tomb, I thought, so I got off the train and went south and west, away from Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.

Grant’s Tomb was closed from 11 AM to noon.  I didn’t realize it was ever closed.  I had seen the rotunda, and the words over it, “LET US HAVE PEACE.”

Across the street I saw a gigantic church, so I thought I’d try to hang out in there a minute and get warm, it was possibly snowing or very lightly hailing, it was hard to tell.

There was a group of musicians being photographed in front of the doors to the church, and I wasn’t sure I could go in, but I saw a woman come out the revolving door, so I quickly went in.  The stained glass windows were big and nice enough, but the walls were too scrubbed, too clean, and there was a dial in the pew you could turn for volume, some sort of listening device.  Only boring varieties of Protestants would care if you could hear well.

A choir was being coached, I listened.  They walked out, and another choir went up.  They were a high school choir.  They had a kid who sang the tenor introduction to one piece all by himself and it broke my heart.  Then they sang some Jamaican sounding song which was awful the way stark meter can ruin something.

I went back to Grant’s tomb.  The inside had some paintings of him, the two sarcophagi below, sort of like the Pantheon in Paris.  The Pantheon was the first place I went in Paris, I had only slept about half an hour, I was starving, the guy at the hotel had refused to speak to me in French, but told me my room would not be ready for an hour, and I thought I would die, instead I went to the Pantheon and wondered what the hell was going on there, a pendulum, a bunch of atheist stuff, graves, it was terribly confusing, like all of Paris.

I wondered what was so great about Grant.  The park ranger at the desk had his head so deep in whatever he was doing that he didn’t seem to be there.  I read the brochure.  I saw people had left prayer cards next to where the bodies of Grant and his wife had been put.

I crossed the street to the visitor’s center.  My shoes were getting quite wet.  I bought these moire flats just before Easter and wore them on Easter, although at the time I did not know they were moire, I thought they were that fabric which has a pattern like woodgrain and is delicate and you should not wear in a wet and muddy Easter egg hunt, even though that is what I did do.  And now I was doubly injuring the shoes, wetting them again, this time not in Kansas mud, but in New York rain, almost snow, or possibly light hail.  Such fabric is also called watered silk.

The visitor’s center was down stone steps, down closer to the river, this river, the Hudson for sure.  There was a gift shop, but no one.  A door opened and a ranger came out.  I went into the bathroom next, and saw she had left her cell phone on the toilet paper dispenser.  When I was done I took her phone out to her, and she said thank you.

She told me the next room had an exhibit and a movie.  She played the movie for me.  I clapped a little, she said, no one ever claps.

“They carried the Civil War veterans up the steps!” I said.

I walked around the room to read everything.  I choked up reading about how Ulysses S. Grant didn’t want to be a soldier yet failed at everything else he tried.  I missed my father terribly, and then my sister, as they are the people I know who also might cry at a National Park thinking about how gently Grant made peace with Lee and, you know, the Civil War.

And that as time went on, veterans of the Civil War gradually met to commemorate the war not separately, but together.

I went home, it took forever.

Inmates

DP134037.jpgAcross the avenue from my doctor’s office is the building with the clock tower.  It was 4:05 PM.

Clock towers: “Back to the Future,” the Prairie Village pool complex, with the clock up there where we could look up from the water to see it was the time Mom said we had to leave, “Peter Pan.”

I had allowed an hour to get to the doctor, and it had taken half an hour to get there.  I had written to my boss that I would have to leave a little early.  Now it was cold and raining and I had half an hour.  I crossed my arms for warmth, and crossed the avenue, and followed a mom and a kid up the steps and in the doors.

Inside was as lovely as outside, vaulting ceilings, a grandiose spiral staircase going up and a Hobbity one going down.  I went down first, Hobbity, and looked over the space, a bitty art display in the hall, then a room of people staring at laptops and books, a few of them homeless and pee-scented.  The public library scene.  Upstairs, at the top of the spiral, there was a wheel of iron that kept the tower open, held it to its proper circumference, kept is lung open, and there were more rooms that were now library rooms, the people, the same, basically, quiet, and I walked around spectator only like I had no interest in books and no library card in my billfold.

These were courtrooms, these various rooms, where people, instead of being in quiet, were engaged in civilized fighting and frequently were chewing on all kinds of hostile feelings and worries.  The children’s reading room was once the police court, the adult reading room was a civil court.

In the entry, there was a glass case with a display about the history of the building.  It was a market and a tower to look for fires (like in the wilderness, now), then that was demolished.  Famous architects built a courthouse.  Completed, it was named one of the five loveliest buildings in the world.  It was a courthouse, then various city offices, then attacked by all the forces of irritability of the city trying to be modern, and saved, post-Penn Station.  The building is on a funny-shaped lot, where Greenwich Village starts and things get confusing, and have gotten confusing, in every way since they set up the grid uptown.  The back half of the lot is also a funny shape, and on it was built a women’s prison.

It was the 1930s, and prisoners in New York City were moving from what is now Roosevelt Island to Riker’s and to this facility, and they were becoming “inmates” instead of “prisoners.”

When it opened, people complained that the building was too lovely for such a shitty neighborhood, Greenwich Village, 1932.

People complained that the screams of the women in the women’s prison were bothersome.  “Hardly the conversation we want our children to hear.”  For forty years, people yelled up to their friends, relatives, and enemies housed inside.  It was a prison with windows that opened, and whosoever was in jail was yelling out and free people were yelling in and at it.

Dorothy Day, Angela Davis, and Ethel Rosenberg: in.

And what time is it?

After moving our prison from Roosevelt Island to Riker’s, the New York Times suggests, among other ideas, that Riker’s be “given back to the sea gulls.”  And the people we imprison or inmate will be moved again.

When the women’s prison was torn down, a process begun by Mayor Lindsay in a cute white hard hat, the courthouse that became a library was no longer overshadowed.  Its clock tower could be seen again from more angles.  And the piece of land behind it became a park: “10 Star and Saucer Magnolia trees, 7 Yoshino Cherry trees, 2 American Yellowwoods, 7 Thornless Honeylocusts, 10 Crabapple trees, 70 fairy hedge roses around the lawn, 60 pycarantha, and 56 holly bushes in clusters.”  I stood and read that with my lips moving because all the names were so melodic, the wind was cold, and I saw that there were roses growing in and on the fence because there were thorns.

It was 4:25 PM.

In the image above, the prison is the ominous thing on the left.  The elevated subway on 6th Avenue is long gone.  

Photo by Berenice Abbott, 1935, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My favorite source on the Women’s House of Detention

The Garden and what was planted there.