Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Gates II

Part II in a continuing series of uncertain length. Read "The Gates I" .

I was no more than twenty paces into the Park, diffident to all appearances but apprehensive just under the surface, when the sun broke through the clouds setting the snow covered ground to gleaming and The Gates afire. The Park dropped away from Columbus Circle's entrance through a natural portal of glacial rock poking through the ground and its blanched skin like gapped molars through flesh, a macadam path threading the pass like floss. Upon the rocks beside the path children and parents, lovers and loners, congregated in twos and threes about cameras with LCD viewers, a minority standing back in the odd arms-length attitude of the digital photographer, a plurality posing.

Stepping onto the flattened grass caked in mud and stamped in the tread of shoes of many sizes and styles, I ascended gingerly the short natural stairway and summited beside them. Beneath me, paths curved in best-fit resplendance, informed by a geometry too cryptic for my divination, and along each of them marched with martial erectness Gates of orange.

I found myself snapping pictures automatically, every few steps, at a pace that threatened to exhaust my film supply before I made it as far north as 60th Street. It was hard not to; this spectacle, for that's what it was, commanded attention, invited attempts at capture even as it sneered tauntingly secure in its knowledge of righteous preservation's impossibility.

Of course, this transience was an integral part of the enterprise. As their website observes, Christo's and Jeanne-Claude's vision turns on the work's "preciousness and . . . urgency, encouraging us to bear witness and drink in the art as much as we can, while we can, all the while knowing it may well be gone the next time we visit . . . ." And so it does.

Reluctantly, I retreated from the blackened molars back to snow and ground and path, and gingerly stepped down the path as it wormed into a small valley, at the foot of which it bent abruptly to the right, under a solitary Gate, lit brilliantly by sunlight as though from within. At the foot of that Gate, feeling surprisingly distant from other people even as they passed by on paths a few yards away, I framed a photo of the Gate and the tree behind it, the hazy buildings of Central Park West looming in the background. A wind twitched at the fabric, and I was conscious of another onlooker approaching who had paused respectfully just outside my frame. I snapped quickly, and smiled my gratitude as he passed.

Isolated courtesies notwithstanding, it was eminent from the moment I entered the Park that all photographic protocols were suspended. I have never felt the odd sensation of so many lenses imprisoning me at once, and shivered to think that this was an experience shared by thousands and thousands of others within the Park's confines. Of course, almost anywhere in New York you will stumble into your share of photographs; during my brief time living in the City, I never entirely adjusted to the endless parades of kitschy double-decker open-top tour buses circling through the East Village, the ruddy faces of mid-Western youths looking down with chocolate stained cheeks in yellow t-shirts and blonde hair pointing at this or that curiosity -- perhaps me -- and gesturing wildly for a parent to attend. In some sense, New Yorkers themselves are tourist attractions, something they grow to accept begrudgingly, but only in time, more time than I had to reorient myself ten years ago.

And so it was thus: people shot close-ups and panoramics, they shot with loved ones in the frame sometimes, and other times waved their companions out of the way impatiently. Those who weren't posing their families at the foot of a Gate -- myself among them -- developed a permanent frown as they surveyed the terrain around them looking for the perfect shot. Shooting a good photograph was a Zen exercise: once i found a location, an angle, a composition, I had to patiently situate myself, eye to view finder, tickling controls for shutter speed, aperture, focus and magnification, waiting for serendipity to provide the perfect light, the perfect breeze, and the perfect bubble in the flowing crowd to afford the desired shot. If I had a penny for every second I stood, rooted to a spot, eye straining from too long viewing the world through a tiny glass square, I could have afforded to buy every merchant at Columbus Circle a venti cappuccino. It provided a brilliant if impromptu exercise in abiding circumstances outside my control.

After taking a few long shots for perspective, to establish the landscape, to capture the interplay on a larger scale of Gates and path and Park, the sun having established itself and the breeze freshening considerably, inviting the saffron to dance, I found myself more and more attentive to minutiae, and shot more and more frequently from beneath Gates looking up. Everywhere I looked, others held expensive cameras in unlikely attitudes, each posture and perspective an inspiration. More than once, I waited until someone had shot a particular picture and departed, then assumed a like stance in the same place, wanting to preserve the same moment, an enterprise rendered wholly impossible by the infinite variation of light and wind and fabric.

Simultaneously, my photos to distance traveled ratio shrank, and I started gathering speed as I meandered into the heart of the sparse woods of the Park's southern quarter. At nearly every juncture, lines of Gates radiated from a given point in at least two directions, with other paths often no more than a hundred feet away, wandering in alternative directions. The parks topography, alternately lumpy and jagged, its spaces open and maintained or wooded and enshadowed, rendered indeterminate the direction any one trail might lead, adding mystery. In this way, the Gates charted alternative destinies, each choice leading to a destination uncertain, no path long unencumbered of new choices requiring attention and spawning the prospect of yet more choices, momentum insufficient where no one alternative successfully prevails over diverging possibilities to command one's obeisance by default.

I pushed northeast into the Park, until I reached the carousel, which was running and crowded with beaming riders. Vendors and parents and strollers and dogs abounded as though it were June rather than February, and if one squinted one could almost imagine that it was June, the overcoats and gloves paling in relevance beside the pink and brown good health and warming good cheer that was everywhere about. At the nexus of paths and roads by the carousel, Gates stalked along the elevated roadway, or down to the tunnel beneath it, and in every direction.

I turned north through a tunnel, and then west, back the way I'd came, detouring toward the southern edge of the softball fields. On my way, I passed a skilled guitarist playing a burgundy electric guitar through a shoe box-size amplifier that stood at his feet. He looked like Wyclef Jean on a diet, his features a lengthened simulacrum, and the song he played was instantly recognizable despite all his gaudy riffs up and down the scales as the Stones' "Painted Black," the idiosyncratic perfection of which prompted me to chuff out an involuntary snort of satisfaction. No one turned. New York.

Around the softball fields, Gates traced near and far the fields' fenced off perimeter, and I could feel myself settling into a rhythm. For the first time, I consulted the map I had bought for $5 just inside the Park, which showed where the Gates were located, and reminded me of orienting details in the Park too big for a seven-year New York expat to entirely retain. And by that map's guide, I wrapped my path around the northern edge of the ballfields and headed into the park's interior toward the broad promenade, the bandshell, and Bethesda Fountain, which was as far ahead as I dared plan.

Gates III


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