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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For Peace and Freedom

In 1935, a couple of retired police officers decided to throw a party.  A sort of giant, expensive party that no one could afford.  I can hardly imagine people with less reason for optimism than retired police officers in 1935.  I can’t believe that retired police officers in 1935 were doing anything but drinking heavily. This winter, the monster winter of 2009-10, and our continuing economic malaise, has kicked us in the stomach pretty good, I think, but in 1935 they had more than double our unemployment.  Comprehensive unemployment benefits had just been born.  A lot of us are now looking at footage from the Great Depression now for some feeling of comfort or camaraderie.  It does help, some.  They had Hoovervilles, we have tentvilles.  We both have breadlines.  Their lines were longer.

I was watching footage of the Depression in Ric Burns’ “American Experience” documentary about the history of New York City.  I recommend it.  I’m interested in New York, of course, and there is lots of history that makes more sense when you draw that city into the discussion.  Even more often than I had realized, New York led the way in dealing with urban problems and political movements.  You are going to have to put up with a gratuitous use of the phrase, “In the years to come” and “In the decades to come,” as if prepositions were on sale that year, or the narrator’s pay was related to consistency of sentence structure.  Mr. Burns also had the enormous misfortune of making a 15-hour documentary about New York in 1999.  Sparkling helicopter views showing the World Trade Center appear over and over again, and clearly a hingepoint in history is just over the horizon of this view.

A few years ago, I had a student who was always quiet, and generally had a sullen look on his face.  For the first month or so of class, I kind of wondered if he might punch me in the face if I said the wrong thing.  Then I read some of his writing that was tender and haunted.  He wrote about some unfortunately common family situations which troubled him.  He was built like a bull, and stared at you like an SS agent.  Underneath he was sad.  He would do stuff in class most of the time, until this particular week when he stopped.  “What’s the deal?”  I would say.  “Let’s get started.  You want to do it this way instead?”  throwing at him the small, baiting choices that can get people going.  A week later, I caught up on reading journals, and I learned his friend had been shot and killed at the bus stop.  I had read about it in the paper, without knowing I had this two-degree separation from the dead kid.  In class the next day, I quietly told my student that I was really sorry.  That it was very sad.

So they dug out this ash heap in Queens and built all these pavilions. They had cars already driving around in 1939.  Cars were not yet drudgery and traffic jams and Jiffy Lube– they were leisure and freedom.  They had an early television.  Television was not yet aesthetic assault and battery everywhere you turn.  You could see the Magna Carta.  They had a dishwasher, which was about to make everyone’s life better (except for people who insist on living in minimally renovated pre-1935 housing like stupid, stupid me).  They had a robot who smoked cigarettes.  He was seven feet tall, spoke 700 words from the record player in his belly, and I would definitely go out on a date with him if his reconstruction goes as planned.

Fiorella LaGuardia and FDR has this idea that when times are tough, you invest.  You whip up the money and pour it over your place and your people like meringue.  It looks pretty, it tastes good, and I don’t know if it makes financial sense, but I know that you can’t talk yourself out of depression or tough your way out of depression.  Depressed people can’t do anything.  (The 1939 World’s Fair did go bankrupt.)

Financial depression and emotional depression have a lot in common. There’s a feeling of scarcity.  Fear.  Lack of energy.  Getting out of depression takes time and an injections of sweetness and kindness and loveliness and inspiration.  Depression, of either type, is a loss of the future, which is why I find the World’s Fair so brave.  People had lost their future.  They went out and built a meringue dream of what it might be, with so little evidence, so little data, to suggest that the future would be anything less painful than the present.

It wasn’t.  It was Hitler and Hiroshima.  We don’t know if our future is Hitler and Hiroshima.  I don’t know if my student will lose more friends, or get lost himself.  His friend’s future was lost forever.  I lost my boyfriend this winter, and I feel like this winter will go on forever, icing me over.

I wonder why people are fighting this health insurance stuff so much.  I wish they would let our government step in for us and take care of us, even in a screwy, half-baked way.  I wish more people were dreaming big now.  What if the government could help?  What if they could do big things, like give us all electricity, or take back Europe, or go to the moon?  It wasn’t corporations who did that stuff.

It doesn’t take any guts to dream with millions of dollars burning a hole in your pocket. The little romance we feel for the Great Depression was that some people did dream, even then, and build bridges and museums and parks.  Many people were broken by it, crushed, and never recovered.  A few dreams and some big inspiring work carried the whole mess forward anyway.