Just as we are about to pass through our very first gate, we encounter the woman with barking tits. Two terrier pups are riding in some sort of holster with her coat wrapped around them so that only the heads poke out. When she sees us staring, she gives them a little boost, lifting them to mid-chest level and making them yip. She smiles beatifically for what must be the hundredth time today.
One goes to New York for the people, I say to myself as we sit in gridlock traffic outside Hoboken, NJ on Friday evening with no clear idea of our destination and a non-functioning cell phone. Someone leans on their horn, triggering a brief outbreak of automotive keening like the lowing of cattle on their way to the slaughterhouse. By the time we get close to where we figure we should be going and find a phone, we aren’t sure of anything anymore, and the person we were supposed to meet has given up and gone somewhere else. But the lights! The lights of mid-town Manhattan after dark, across the Hudson River, are almost worth all our anxiety at being trapped and lost. Each building is an icy beacon, a scroll of unreadable Morse code.
It turns out we never were lost; we simply thought we were. Is that a consolation or not? If you could place perfect trust in the universe at all times, you would never really be lost, would you?
Pace Dante, the middle of a dark wood is precisely where I feel most at home. It’s these goddamned cities that throw me for a loop. We have built a landscape that says There is no center other than what we can construct or recover from the chaos of our transactions. But if we allow ourselves to believe that the world is without any true mooring, can we ever banish that feeling of being small, helpless animals?
On the ferry the next morning, the skyline seems no less fabulous with the sun pouring through the glass canyons. What had shone was now being shone upon, an almost sexual shift in position between buildings and sky. One way or another, the great Western city expresses a yen to cut all ties with the earth. On this soft and swampy island to seek such permanence, to crowd so many erections into a single sky is beyond schizophrenic. What underwrites this?
Nueva York de cieno,
Nueva York de alambres y de muerte.
¿Qué angel llevas oculto en la mejilla?
¿Qué voz perfecta dirá las verdades del trigo?
¿Quién el sueño terrible de tus anémonas manchadas?
The New York of mud,
New York of wire meshwork and of death.
What angel do you carry, tucked away in your cheek?
Whose perfect voice will recite the verities of wheat?
Whose terrible dream of your soiled anemones?
Federico García Lorca, “Oda á Walt Whitman,” Poeta en Nueva York
The poet in New York is forever giving wings to the pigeons, adding pages to a finished book, carving out tunnels in the subway. It’s more or less what everyone has to do to stay sane in the midst of so much superfluity. Christo and Jeanne-Claude with their thousands of helpers, their millions of visitors, have merely given this reflex a name and a frame. Each step we take might as well cross an invisible threshold. What had seemed superfluous has turned into a superfluid, “matter in a unique state characterized by extraordinarily large thermal conductivity and capillarity,” as Webster’s New Collegiate puts it.
The New York of mud was fertile enough soil for Frederick Law Olmsted. In the very heart of the wire meshwork of streets, this open, female space pulses with orange carnival. It definitely belongs here, we agree – but what else would you expect from four bloggers? Everything about our online medium spells transience; our very thoughts dress themselves in unrhyming orange.
Meeting old friends for the first time, one invariably says about these gatherings of on-line acquaintances. Lorianne writes memorably about gates and strangers, Leslee fills in a number of other details, and our gracious host Elck pledges that his Gates Blog will be as short-lived as the installation it documents.
New York is a city of transients and refugees, students and exiles. I sat out on the sidewalk at 8:00 o’clock at night like a ferryman with a broken tiller watching the river flow past: Fire engines. A rumpled looking guy in a tweed jacket. A uniformed security guard doing his best to walk like a cop. A stray sheepdog with so much hair in its eyes it must navigate the streets by sound and smell alone. Young lovers speaking Catalan and kissing in between puffs on their cigarettes.
I like this time of year in large part because of the way the low sun lies across the land, turning evergreens and the rare but regular splashes of orange and red incandescent. But I have plenty of opportunities for solitary contemplation at home. The crowds and festive atmosphere in Central Park suit me just fine. I wonder if this woman with a mask on the back of her head might be thinking of the saffron-colored tigers of the Sundarbans, whose preference for the backs of necks can be thwarted in just such a manner? Dogs bark or attack when you stare at them; members of the cat family are famously chary of meeting the eyes of their prey. But what about the man with the waxed moustache? Himself an artist and a photographer, he’s grateful to be photographed, he says.
Here on Brush Mountain, every summer we go looking for chicken mushrooms, so called because of their firm flesh and meaty taste. They’re not hard to spot: they form large, bright orange-yellow shelves on rotting logs and at the bases of dead trees. Unlike soil-based fungi, chicken mushrooms are transient – you seldom find them in the same location two years in a row. They stay fresh for a couple weeks – long enough to attract the beetles that eat and spread their spores. (Actually, I’m not sure, but I think that’s how they reproduce.) Sometimes it’s easy to forget that everything wasn’t placed here for our delectation, that it has its own, obscure intentions which our consumption may either serve or thwart.
Two beggars on the subway, the first a sad sack who marches from car to car reciting her sorrows and asking people to find it in their hearts to give her whatever small change they can part with. Nobody budges; we all stare sullenly away. But on the stairs to the street, another mendicant makes a merry rhythm by shaking a cup with some coins in the bottom. He’s reclining on one elbow with his knee up, and all he has to do is meet our eyes and we give him all the change in our pockets. “God bless you,” he calls out in a strong and laughing voice, and goes back to jiggling the cup on his knee, now just a little bit lower in pitch. We feel blessed indeed. “I only hope he spends it all on booze,” I say when we get up the street.
We drive home in a blinding snowstorm. I-80 is famous for its multi-car pile-ups in bad weather; it’s always the other drivers you have to look out for. So we creep along with the four-way flashers on, orange orange orange. Other cars take the hint and hang way back, switch on their own flashers. Twice we pass fresh accident scenes, signalled by flares and the lights of emergency vehicles.
Ecological historians tell us that fire is the first and most powerful language that human beings ever mastered. Its colors spell fortune and disaster, food and death. Every living being is a slow fire, I think as we pass the first unfortunate car crumpled into the trees of the median strip. We are a beacon and a warning. Each guardian angel wields a flaming sword.