31 March 2015

Notes from Bryant Park

Manhattan is an unspoilt wilderness of tall buildings. In the midst of this landscape of native species is an art installation of ungainly and asymmetrical sculptures. They are short, which contrasts strongly, almost pathetically, with their surroundings. These artificial structures are called “trees”. They are really striking. I can't stop wondering how someone came up with the idea to interrupt the Manhattan landscape with such an alien species.

We walked through Times Square, where the sides of the buildings are large screens. Everything in Times Square is moving, flashing, fast. When the advertisements in Times Square want to call your undivided attention to their product, therefore, they cannot get your attention with color, contrast, or speed. The only thing they can do that really stands out is... to slow down the film and show the product in slow motion.
A fast-paced society can either go faster and faster until it runs itself into the ground, or decide that speed is outmoded and the hip thing is to go slowly. Rome just kept expanding and expanding until it burst. The advertisers of Times Square have made the wiser choice. I feel like in Times Square I see the future, or the end, or both, of this civilization.

Mine host for this excursion said we must walk past the wax museum, because the statue in front of it looks so lifelike that we would do a double-take.
I did not do a double-take. The difference is that a real human face is more luminous.

The Chrysler building is beautiful, not because its design is inherently beautiful – really it's a bit spiky – but because it is more story than building. That is excellence in architecture. I want to sit here for a long time and read that building.

M & J Trimmings is proof that G-d loves humanity.

New York is a generous city, probably one of the most generous cities in the world. I've always said that I love New Yorkers because they keep up both sides of the conversation. The city is the same: it furnishes you with such diversity of experience that you could live here for a long time before you ever felt the need to become anything. At one point I found myself walking down the street, not because I was headed anywhere in particular, but because the sixteen people around me were walking that direction. With such richness of company, who needs direction? You could easily forget about going anywhere. Every one of those people is a small world in himself; and their histories are diverse. The buildings are richly and beautifully ornamented. You could walk around New York and just admire and admire and admire all its richness and its people for a long time before it would occur to you that you need to have your own life, too. Then you would have this incredible trove of artistic inspiration to draw on.

Even the acanthus on the columns of Bowery Bank is not flora but people: New York's flowers are its faces.

Observations in the park. Skinny artists smiling into their mail the smile of the loved. At their feet, obese pigeons.
Young Italianate men in shirtsleeves and fisherman's caps tossing wooden balls: a scene from a hundred years ago.
As I am making these notes on the passersby I notice that two of them are also making notes on me.

You can see in the style of many buildings that this used to be New Amsterdam. It is Amsterdam writ about ten stories taller.

Grand Central Terminal has a view of constellations on its ceiling. Mine host says that when this ceiling was finished, someone pointed out to the designer that the constellations are shown in mirror-image. “O, yes,” he said, “that was deliberate. It is God's view of the heavens.”
So you can stand at the bottom of this tall hall and look down on the world.

Starbuck's. Q. What is the connection between the noble, self-sacrificing First Mate of the Pequod, and a cup of coffee?

Ruskin says, and I agree, that wrought-iron is suited to sculptures of flora, and to nasty fences keeping robbers out. Wrought-iron fences are not suited to friendly, inviting delineations of space.

The English language is in a fair way to run out of profanity. Those words that were once unspeakable are now commonplace, and there are no worse words lined up to replace them.

Q. Why does the large button sculpture in the Garment District have five holes in it?

In the library, a replica is shown of the pencils manufactured by Thoreau. They don't look like pencils at all – more like glorified twigs. How fitting.

I went into the library, not because I had anything particular to look up, but because I like to browse and admire long shelves of expertise in every conceivable subject.
It is a long climb before you get to the reading rooms, as if the star of the place is not books but stair-steps. In the reading room I saw many people on computers.
“I have a dumb question,” I said to the librarian. “Where are the books?”
She drew from behind her desk an illustration – I guess a lot of people ask the question. “There are seven stories of books under your feet,” she said. They are populated by dwarves. You look in a card catalog, identify the book you want, and send down your request by pneumatic tube. The dwarves mine that book for you and send it up. The stacks extend even under Bryant Park.
(That must be where the trees came from! They sprouted from all the paper.)
You may not look at the books.

Oh. So, for my purpose of browsing and wondering, I went to the room of manuscripts.
You have to buzz in. I buzzed.
The Butler of Manuscripts came to the door. “Yes?”
“Must one have a particular quest in mind to enter this room, or does general interest suffice?”
“It does not,” said the Butler of Manuscripts. “This room is for Researchers.”

I cannot wrap my mind around the New York Central Library. It is the only library I have ever seen where you can do anything but look at books. It is, I suppose, excellent training in focused thought and delayed gratification. You have to first identify your Quest, then the book you want, then wonder and wonder what it is going to be, and know that human labor brought it to you. No wonder 90% of the young people in the reading room are on computers.

It is appropriate, then, that the library's lions are named Patience and Fortitude, since those are what it takes to get a book in the library.

The reserve of the library is in striking contrast to the in-your-face generosity of the rest of the city.

Loops says her favorite thing in New York is the subway, because it is spicy.

Whatever New York is, it is enthusiastically and uninhibitedly – grimy, ornamented. To a certain degree, what Jerusalem is in kodesh, New York is in chol.

New York is like Adar: the chaos of it, the very extremeness of its pratius, points to it not being under the control of any mortal.

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