NY(1)

Comfortably stretched out across the back seat of the Nissan Almera rented in Newport, E asked himself if he was the same person who had left the Italian scholastic system less than two months ago. He had spent sixty years there: schoolchild, scholar, teacher, and finally principal. Now he was returning to New York from Niagara Falls with the young couple he had joined for the excursion, and the world in which he had spent his life seemed distant. At their heart, he thought, all educational systems are sheltered places of study that allow one “to pass through various civilizations, sciences, languages, arts, eras.” Ever since he had arrived in NY, that passage from The Glass Bead Game, which had had such weight on his decision to become a teacher, turned in his mind. Hermann Hesse had created an imaginary place populated by an elite circle of students, teachers, and scholars of the “glass bead game.” In that book, written against the backdrop of the Second World War, Hesse had imagined a place in which people’s cultures, instead of fighting for a supremacy that is as bloody as it is temporary, intertwine themselves in a dialogue that creates new meaning. That place, Castalia, now seemed to E a metaphor for educational systems: sheltered places that offer, to whoever wants to gather there, extraordinary opportunities for personal growth. E thought himself to be in the same situation as the protagonist of Hesse’s novel. This person, now an older “glass bead player” has abandoned Castalia to return to civilian life. While he was lost in these thoughts, Janusz, the young Pole driving the Nissan, braked suddenly, and abruptly thrown against the front seats, he realized that that comparison was, perhaps, not really auspicious. Indeed, the protagonist of the novel dies immediately after his agonizing departure, while E was determined to continue the journey he had begun in NY  in search of signs that could guide him in his new life. Retaking his comfortable position in the backseat of the car, E‘s thoughts wandered to the Met Fifth Avenue, which he had visited a few days ago. “The Metropolitan Museum of Art collects, studies, conserves, and presents significant works of art across all times and cultures in order to connect people to creativity, knowledge, and ideas.” E was struck by the idea that this encapsulated Hesse’s utopia. He thought that the Met was a village of Castalia. If NY seethes, chaotically engaged with every form of human life, in its museums one is in Castalia. At the Met, the manifestations of the creativity of the peoples and the tribes of the planet prevail over the aggressiveness that often generated them.

“We’re almost there.” The soft voice of Wislawa, Janusz’s girlfriend, again recalled E from his thoughts. He had met the young couple through Couchsurfing in order to share the costs of the excursion. He had spent three enjoyable days with them. Wislawa’s petite figure seemed to almost disappear next to the massive Janusz, but her gaze, as angelic as it was determined, had strength. The visit to the falls had been accompanied by an exploration of other places shaped by water: Ithaca Falls, Taughannock Falls, the gorges of Watkins Glen Park. The geological and botanical history of the area were visible here and there in the deep paths that guide the waterways. At Niagara Falls, Wislawa pressed herself onto the most exposed ledge, almost underneath the waterfall. Her small body, in front of that immense mass of water that nearly engulfed her, made E reflect on the human condition and its fragility, but also on the resolve that man had expressed in the face of nature, accomplishing the reinforcement of the edges underneath the waterfall to limit their erosion. For a moment, he imagined that this sense of fragility had been shared by the many humans who had passed through these places, and his perception of time shifted. He saw the Ongiara, the Iroquois tribe who gave their name to the falls, and then further back to its last glaciation. Who knows if Homo sapiens were already there, E was asking himself when Wislawa repeated, “We’re almost there.” He had a pumpkin, purchased from a farm along the road, balanced on his legs. “It’s been a wonderful trip; we could meet up again at the Halloween parade on Sixth Avenue, but you have to come in costume.” It was one week until October 31—E had time to think it over.

He had been in NY for four weeks. He had discovered the city wandering as a tourist in the company of his daughter and wife for a little more than a week. They had spent hours walking through Central Park, enjoyed the variety of unusual shows offered by the Big Apple, and tasted the famous pastrami. Then he had been left on his own. They had returned to Italy, and he had rented a room to the extreme north of the island of Manhattan, in Inwood, a neighborhood that was becoming more popular. He lived on Broadway, which gave him a certain pleasure, even if he was above 200th Street, more than ten kilometers from the theaters. He shared the apartment with a Latin American family: grandmother, daughter, grandson. The decor was a tasteful mix of high-quality modern furniture and more antique pieces, and it expressed on the whole a certain economic stability. E wondered if the family shared the apartment in which they lived due to unexpected economic necessities. Maybe the thousand dollars he paid for a bedroom with use of the kitchen and bathroom served to pay for the grandson’s schooling. E regretted not knowing Spanish. He would have liked to get to know Grandma Carmen better. She was the same age as his mother would have been, had she still been alive. He imagined the discomfort his own mother would have had at seeing a stranger rummaging through her kitchen, and he opted to eat out, a typical New York practice.

It hadn’t been easy to find this room; the price was reasonable—for Manhattan—due to the distance from downtown, but there was a subway station very close. As soon as he had arrived at the room, he had happily strolled through a nice park near the apartment, coming to the top of a hill, from which he could see the Hudson River. There he noticed one of the many cognitive dissonances that NY presents to its visitors. There appeared before him, through the park’s splendid autumn foliage, an imposing Romanesque tower. The construction seemed to E so authentic that he almost doubted he was still in NY. He approached with caution, as if he were outside reality. Following a path just like the ones he had seen a thousand times in Italian villages, there appeared a medieval building with elegant Gothic mullioned windows. For a moment he truly believed himself to be back in Italy. Fortunately, the signs at the entrance brought him back to a state of comforting rationality. In the immediate vicinity of Inwood is located the Cloisters, a Met museum dedicated to the art, architecture, and gardens of medieval Europe. The extravagant building was constructed in the ‘30s, bringing from Europe the stones of French and Spanish monasteries. E was struck by the reexamination of medieval culture that emerged from the building and the works on display. For a moment, walking in one of the cloisters, built from the remains of French Cistercian monasteries, he felt as if he were in that of the Basilica di Sant’Andrea in his own Vercelli. He was face to face with one of the most controversial operations of the history of museums: the removal of entire architectural structures to construct an artificial mosaic of medieval European buildings that, in their own context, would have been expressions of different cultures and histories. Like many Europeans, who had done similar operations in their own museums—the Metopes of the Parthenon in the British Museum in London, the Pergamon Museum in Berlin—he had regarded this American approach with disdain. He supposed that the paradigm of collecting these objects in a museum was merely the manifestation of the hegemony of the culture that collects onto those from which it collects. The same hegemonic culture that was now in the process of turning the Native Americans into museum objects but had now removed from Manhattan every sign of the Lenape, the people who had lived on the island for centuries and, in 1626, “sold” it to Dutch settlers. But in the following weeks, E gradually let go of that opinion. In his extended visits to the museums of New York, he was persuaded that the works of art from all over the world, collected with the means of the US economic empire, are brought to life in dialogue between themselves in the way they are separated from the culture and places that had created them. It seemed to him that those operations of cultural hegemony brought out a new spiral of complexity in the history of human culture, in which the expressions of local arts, of cultures which were often at war with one another, interweave in an attempt to construct a varied, multiracial, and blended world culture.

Inwood turned out to be an interesting neighborhood. Under his apartment, there were many businesses open 24 hours: the Fine Fare supermarket, a laundromat, plus restaurants of different price ranges. Like many outlying neighborhoods, Inwood is alive late into the night with the many different workers returning from downtown NY—first the office workers, then those who clean the offices, and finally those working in entertainment and food service. E began to inhabit the life of the neighborhood, finding a new routine far from home, a way of life different from that of the tourist. On Dyckman Street, 200 meters from his residence, he found the Tread Bike Shop, where it was possible to rent a bicycle for 40 euros a day, a reasonable price for Manhattan. The Hudson River Greenway is a bicycle path immersed in the green of the park that runs the whole island of Manhattan, following the river. One can enter at Dyckman Street and go all the way to Battery Park at the south tip of the island, with a path of more than 20 kilometers. This is how he began his exploration of the neighborhoods surrounding Inwood: Hudson Heights, Washington Heights, Sugar Hill, Harlem, but also the Bronx. Bicycling around, E immediately had the impression that even that part of the city safe. In all his stay, he didn’t encounter any incidents of violence; in fact, he was surprised at the confidence with which so many women moved about, during the day as well as late at night. Indeed, NY had become progressively safer in the last 30 years; the deployment of law enforcement had been massive, and their presence was still noticeable. This process had accompanied the gentrification of the areas with a bad reputation but high market value, transforming them into areas full of businesses and social activity. NY had been broke, and it restored its balance sheets thanks to the 50 million tourists that now visit every year. The price has been the progressive expulsion of the poor and disadvantaged of the population. As Woody Allen says in one of his films that promoted the city to the whole world, “It’s difficult to live in this town without a big income.”

E never went farther than 10 kilometers from his residence on the bicycle; he wasn’t in shape for cycling, and furthermore, off of the bicycle paths, NY is too big and trafficked, and the risk of “dooring”—running into a car door that has been suddenly opened—is very high. The subway is more affordable and convenient. He alternated a few days on the bicycle with the more frequent use of the A train, which got him to Midtown in less than thirty minutes to discover the museums, the events, the infinite opportunities offered by NY to the traveler that visits without haste, without the anxiety of seeing everything possible. He had spent the last week in NY like this as well, and E was getting ready for his move to Washington DC, but before leaving the city, he had to find a mask to meet his Polish friends at the Halloween Parade. New Yorkers spend a lot on costumes. Humungous stores offer costumes for every budget, and some are works of art. The city falls prey to a veritable fever for dress-up: not even dogs are left out, and they too come in costume. Hopkins Square, in the beautiful neighborhood of East Village, for more than twenty years has been home to one of the most controversial manifestations of the relationship between Homo sapiens and Canis lupus familiaris: the Halloween Dog Parade. Here the creativity of the first species dresses up the second with an incredible variety of costumes, generally based on cartoon characters or show-business personalities. Many dogs endure the costuming with impatience, while others strut about, sharing their owners’ satisfaction.

In order to avoid falling prey to the shopping frenzy that precedes the day of Halloween, E decided that the budget for his costume would not exceed 15 dollars. A pittance for NY. For a long time, he had been of the opinion that Italians were viewed by foreigners, in particular by Anglo-Saxons, as friendly, fun, imaginative people, but also as sly, devious, untrustworthy. Harlequin would have been the perfect costume. He diligently searched for it, visiting immense stores with every type of costume. He found quite a few Harlequin costumes, some wonderful, but they were all completely out of his budget. As always, a limited budget breeds creativity: he purchased a simple black mask that covered only the eyes, painted the right part with white spray paint, and then rubbed black paint onto the right side of his face and white paint onto the left. He had the Tao in mind, but in the mirror his face brought more to mind a chessboard, but he was nonetheless satisfied with the results: it instilled a sense of cheeriness but also a certain disquiet. Although it was the last evening of October, it was still hot. He dressed in a black shirt with white pants and left his room; he was entirely black and white. He greeted Grandma Carmen, who was unfazed at seeing him costumed. He took the elevator: there a skeleton and a chessboard face greeted each other.

In the Dyckman Street station there were more people than normal; all the subway cars were packed, with many of the people in costume. After more than half an hour of travel, almost everyone got off at the Washington Square station. E chose the next one, Spring Street, exactly where New York’s Village Halloween Parade began. It was 7:30, and the parade had already begun. He emerged at Sixth Avenue, making his way through the crowd. Only then did he realize the true nature of the event. Tens and tens of thousands of people, often in groups, paraded past in their costumes—skeletons, demons, monsters, costumes of every type—dancing, enjoying themselves, down the street. Millions of people on the sidewalks participated, applauding the best groups, greeting friends, dancing with them. The mood was one of serene, multiethnic joyousness. The ban on the use of alcohol and drugs was strictly followed, partly because after the parade the party would continue in public and private places.

In the confusion, E didn’t find the young Poles with whom he had made plans. He stopped at Third Street and remained there for hours, stunned by those waves of costumes and crowds. This event had begun quietly in 1973 and now attracted hundreds of thousands of people. E wondered what it was about that dancing promenade in costume that was so profound as to trigger such explosive participation. Organized groups had a strong presence, but the individual aspect prevailed. That river of people evoked something primitive, ancestral, but also self-aware. It seemed to E a spontaneous expression of the need to have a deep collective experience that recalls the most ancient rites of belonging among tribes and peoples, as he imagined them during times in which Homo sapiens had split themselves into groups that were often at war among one another, and had conquered the Earth. A hundred thousand years later, the descendants of those people were reunited here to share that deep, mysterious aspect of human nature. Perhaps the Lenape tribe would have also taken part, if they had not been expelled four centuries ago, after their rash “sale” of the island.

It had grown late. The parade continued, but people began to disperse. E moved away from his spot on Third Street as well. He passed in front of Blue Note, where he had been two weeks before, but now wasn’t the time to try to dine there. He decided to walk down to Second Avenue. There, between Fifth and Sixth Street, there’s a restaurant that he knew, Local 92. He had been there in the first days of his stay in NY with his wife and daughter, before going to see the show Stomp. He had been there again since; they made a fantastic hummus. He thought he would eat there and then return to Inwood before too late; the next day he would be leaving NY for Washington DC, the second leg on his trip. He didn’t yet know that his night had only just begun. Walking through the streets overflowing with masks, he realized that his chessboard face raised curiosity and was an opportunity for exchanges and greetings. From the windows of some houses he glimpsed the lights, heard the music and voices of the parties that had already begun. He encountered a completely nude man exiting a house to get something from the car parked out front. He became convinced of the tribal nature of the celebration of Halloween in NY. In half an hour, he arrived at Local 92. The restaurant was packed, and he had to wait at the bar. E drank a manhattan and began a conversation with a group of demonic masqueraders. One of these said to him, “We’re going to a party near here. Do you want to bring your chessboard with us?” And so he entered into a sightless world in which he danced until dawn, believing himself to be a Lenape.

A, reflecting on the month spent in NY, realized that E hadn’t encountered a single Native American. He hadn’t searched for them, but it would have been difficult to find them nonetheless. They are 0.4 percent of the population, and very few of them are descendants of the Lenape.

Un pensiero su “NY(1)

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