Monday, August 23, 2010

The Accidental Tourist

My Uncle Steve from Texas is visiting NYC for the first time in ten years, and I'm having that infrequent but delightful experience of being a tourist in my own city. I feel like I did when I was an unencumbered student, reading life like one seamless novel written with omens and clear connective tissues just for me. I'm experiencing coincidences for the first time in a long time, and each one feels like a purposeful gift from the Universe. As an aside, I have to further explore the fact that Keith Haring pops up everywhere for me except my bowl of oatmeal lately.

Steve is a one of a kind; with him it's easy to find yourself, within 24 hours, bouncing from LaGuardia airport to Joe Shanghaii's in Chinatown for soup dumplings, to the New Museum of Contemporary Art on the Bowery to see an original "dream machine" by the Beat illuminary Brion Gysen, to Other Music, the astounding indie record store that makes the record store in High Fidelity look like Barnes & Noble, to a screening of Wings of Desire at the Anthology Film Archives... no wonder I'm exhausted! That's to say nothing of the following morning's trip to Coney Island, where we caught the Sideshow and (not all of us) rode the Cyclone.

Here's the thing about "Wings of Desire". It's as amazing now as it was twenty years ago. Twenty years ago I was thinking, Wow! Nick Cave and Peter Falk! Now I'm thinking, Wow! Peter Falk and Nick Cave! The idea that angels hang around in libraries and steal our pencils and squeeze our shoulders when we're feeling down is, rational or not, a lucid comfort to me. They go to the circus and fall in love. They exchange overheard conversations with one another. They listen to private thoughts on the subway. They wear stellar overcoats.

Over the last 36 hours or so I've replayed much of the film in my mind. If I were studying acting, I'd watch the scene of Peter Falk trying on twenty hats over and over again, or revisit his first invisible encounter at the lonely coffee cart. The old man wandering through the urban field throughout the movie was a seer archetype, but I'm still ruminating on his thread in the film. A random thought is that Bruno Ganz is clearly George Clooney's muse; Ganz could be Clooney's father... it's uncanny. Finally, Peter Handke's poetry about childhood can feel free to hang around and whisper into my ear as long as Franny's Jesus prayer hung around with her in Franny and Zoe. "Als das Kind Kind war"... "When the child was still a child..."

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Stumbling into two Keith Harings, 3,600 miles apart

Yesterday, Jamie and I went to the Carmine Street swimming pool, now named after Tony Dapolito, a posthumous tribute to the old "Mayor of Greenwich Village", whose family owned the Vesuvio Bakery (recently closed, seemingly another victim of the economy). The unique thing about this little outdoor swimming pool is that its backdrop is a giant mural that was painted by Keith Haring in 1987, just three years before his death in 1990. The mural, long-since restored by the Keith Haring Foundation, is painted in yellow and turquoise, and full of his signature squiggle people swimming and dancing with jumping and dancing dolphins. I've always loved swimming in the shadow of this public works gem.

Early last week, we were walking through the Les Halles neighborhood in Paris and ducked into the Saint-Eustache Cathedral, a late Gothic structure where, supposedly, Louis XIV took communion and Mozart held his mother's funeral. I'd enjoyed six weeks of touring cathedrals up and down France, and in all of the paintings (Delacroix) and relics (St. Peter's bones) that we'd purportedly encountered, I was most surprised to find in a small side chapel, a triptych altar piece created by Keith Haring. Haring certainly created his share of artworks loaded with religious symbols, and most of it was cynical and dark. Often he illustrated the Apocalypse, illuminating the fear that the Catholic church instills in people to divert them from natural human desires. So what struck me about this piece was its complete lack of irony. There are people on each fold dancing and celebrating the birth of Christ, below Mary holding her newborn baby. It's almost like Haring wanted to make a distinction between the hypocritical beaurocracy of the church and its avatar.

I've enjoyed seeing Haring's work over the years randomly sprinkled through the pavement of the East Village. There is a little stairwell leading to a nail parlor around the corner on Second Avenue between 3rd and 4th Streets that sports his circular patterns. Actually, the nail place has closed, and I hope whoever takes over the space doesn't rip out the concrete steps.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

My West Village Medicine

An antidote to feeling grumpy about coming home to New York from Paris was simple enough: a nice stroll through an August-ghost land, otherwise known as the West Village. I knew that one thing I'd miss hugely about Paris was how five streets randomly intersect, without rhyme or reason. My friend Jennifer told me that the city had been made up largely of villages that would eventually connect, and that once in a while she'd look up and realize that she was standing in one of them...they have a certain compact and complete look, and as I walked down Rue du Martyrs my last evening there, I felt we had stumbled into one. There was a triangular park, with at least five streets intersecting there. The street itself, which I'm sure has a gruesome history that I'll look up one day soon, is now strewn with gourmet shops and cafes, but it's easy to imagine that hundreds of years ago it was a crossroads where people who lived on surrounding farmland would wander to pick up their supplies for the week and put back a few before heading on their way.

The West Village is such a neighborhood, a windy arrangement of uncertain urban planning that offers up opportunities of getting lost, unlike its close New York brethren, the grid system, which with its numbered streets and avenues can lead you far more easily to your destination. I've walked the roundabout streets hundreds of times over the years and have my favorite spots. I still have to search a bit for my favorite bookstore (Three Lives), but can more easily find my way to my favorite public art (Keith Herring mural at the Carmine Street swimming pool), playground (Bleecker Street), garden (St. Luke's Church), and burger and beer joint (Corner Bistro). Sadly, St. Vincent's Hospital has just gone bankrupt and closed; I had Jamie there, and will always feel sentimental that he was born in the West Village on the 9th floor of its only hospital. I love the literary history of the neighborhood (Under the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell is one of my all time favorite books), and I'd always prefer to conjure up Dylan Thomas hanging out at the old Whitehorse Tavern than Carrie Bradshaw buying cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery, but that's just me.