Dérive, New York

I had about a day and a half in New York City after the conference. I knew I wanted to see MOMA and get to Greenwich Village, maybe squeeze in a visit to Chinatown or Coney Island, but everything between those points was up for grabs. I set out to string a dérive between and within those points of interest, Eleggua strapped in the sidecar. Caveat lector: this is rambling, like the walk itself. This is more for me to organize my experiences as anything else.

I got a little turned around navigating the distance between the subway stop and the museum. I had planned my trip during the week and did not realize that the subways ran differently on the weekend. Finding my way back toward MOMA took me past consulates as well as Quest Books and its associated Theosophical Society. There is a Starbucks I came across for which I have fond feelings, not only for its comfortable and aesthetically pleasing space, but for the sign mounted beside the door clarifying that the tables were available for the public, regardless of purchase.

I still got to MOMA too early—in time for the members-only opening, not the general opening an hour later. A few blocks down, a street fair dominated the streets, allowing me the pleasure of walking down the middle of what would otherwise be a busy thoroughfare. I stumbled across an egregiously chintzy faux-gold medallion for St. Benedict which absolutely had to come home with me (Benedict forms one of the antipodes of a spiritual contact).

I circled back to MOMA just minutes after its public opening and the building was already buzzing with activity, ticket lines snaking out into the middle of the rather large open entryway. Still, the line moved quickly and in a few more minutes I was passing, ticket in hand, into the museum proper.

I let the escalators carry me to the very top floor and proceeded to follow the wall from room to room. That created a gentle bit of cross-cutting, as following the wall would carry me from one room to another after a partial circuit of its contents. I would return to the rest when the line of the wall carried me back to them.

It was surprising how intimate the museum felt. For all the crowd, it was easy to pause and linger at, or drift quickly past, an exhibit. I spent two and a half hours in a state that fused wonder, nostalgic yearning, simple delight, engaged contemplation, and acute mortality. The number of times I caught myself tearing up or lighting up with pleasure formed the acute edges of a amorphous field of emotion and thought.

Roberto Matta’s The Vertigo of Eros? Sublime, suggesting to me both the bones in the grave and the depths of the heavens. A Rothko that looked like a Klee? Delightful. Also, to my surprise, it is true what they say about Rothko’s abstract works—they really are different in person, subtle and profound. (For the record, it was neat to see Starry Night, but it really does reproduce well.)

It would be ludicrous to try and tally up the list of such moments, but I will say that organizing my trip as a strict descent through the museum was perfect. After the heavy and inspiring great works of the early 20th century, an exhibit on alliances between Latin American and Eastern European artists, after that the designers and architects and their pure forms. Milan Knížák‘s performance files were fascinating efforts to explore these bare, minimal conditions of human experience as such, bordering on the sacred and the communal all at once. I kept thinking about the contemporary LARP scene in Europe against this background.

The conclusion, an exhibition that served as a meditation on the future, ended with a poignant video collage/spoken word piece that fused the creation stories of the Maya, Yoruba, Kongo, and Jewish people to a collage exploring contemporary astrophysics, capitalist consumption, museum culture, and the sixth great extinction. That final work drew together the whole museum experience for me, the poignant yearning for an other, better, world at the heart of so much modernism side-by-side with the living evidence of that world’s inability to fully realize itself. And of the museum itself being part of the process through which that realization is stifled.

After the museum, it was off to Greenwich Village. While the Village that drew me to the place no longer exists, the ghost tracks that lie just beneath it? Those seem to be intact enough. I spent some time wandering back and forth, using Christopher Street as a touchstone. A number of fetish stores still dot the neighborhood, memorializing headier times.

After a little bit of wandering and grabbing a bite to eat at a Cuban restaurant (Havana, Alma de Cuba), I dropped into liquor store for three small bottles of alcohol, then over to the smoke shop for a cigar. I spent ten or fifteen minutes making a quiet offering in Christopher Park, rewarded by a man approaching me in broken Spanish and English, thanking me.

Wandering took me to the edge of what I think might have been the East Village, then back up toward Midtown where I began. The long walk to 53rd Street brought me past Penn Station, the New York Public Library, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, through the hubbub of residents and tourists making their way through Manhattan. I was approached by a Buddhist monk very eager to add names to his book of peace prayers. I am delighted that I honestly don’t know if this was sincere religiosity or peculiar hustling.

I found my way into a well-curated used bookstore, where I discovered a hardcover set of Claude Levi-Strauss’s first two volumes of the Mythologique series and Dr. Seuss’s The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History’s Barest Family. To have had deep pockets for those! The Seuss book intrigues me in part for the indirect witchiness of the story which follows seven naked sisters who have taken an oath over the body of their fallen father, a knight.

The half-day was no less rewarding. I headed out toward Brooklyn’s Chinatown, but didn’t quite make it. Instead, I felt the urge to take a few detours along the subway route, discovering at one stop (an unfortunately closed) Museum of the Contemporary African Diasporan Arts and a Muslim neighborhood.

As I moved closer toward my destination of Chinatown, I felt this growing sense of heaviness, bordering on unease. Trying to find my way into the heart of it, I tried out feeling if it felt like a bad omen and that didn’t quite feel right. When I felt for if it was nudging me off the train, though, it felt right. This stop? No. the next stop? Yes. Apparently the heaviness was that of a half million graves lodged within Brooklyn.

When I come up from the subway, I find myself on the edge of Greenwood Cemetery. I spent a bit of time wandering around the front of the cemetery, marveling over the complimentary map at how much more lies beyond the narrow band of graves I’m exploring (not a bad analogue for the entire trip). I find a string of graves adorned with St. Anthony of Padua, then the cemetery chapel. The chapel is something else, hot and focused, with four doors forming an X to the cross of the entry, altar, and two aisles in the nave.

When I am done there, I return to Manhattan rather than push on. There is not much time left in my trip and I wanted to be partway into my airport route rather than at a further remove from it. I land in Central Park, circle the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then spend a fair bit of time in search of a restaurant (Khyber Pass) for which I have clearly provided myself poor directions. Resting in Central Park for a bit before returning to the subway, I spy a hawk sailing over a nearby building. It’s the first one I’ve seen since landing in New York, which otherwise seems to belong to the pigeons and the sparrows.

The last bit of the trip, I bump into a fellow conference goer in the airport bathroom (someone I first met at Viridis Genii) and end my time in New York sitting on an open air space within the airport terminal as evening settles upon the city, the wind rustling the transplanted grasses that circle the space. Then up into the air to sail above the luminescent eastern seaboard, to home.

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One thought on “Dérive, New York

  1. Pingback: [NB] Person, Persona, Style | Disrupt & Repair

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