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 III

I wrote the first two installments of this experience (Gates I, Gates II) last winter, when this weblog was in its infancy. In searching for these posts, I discovered that, while I had failed utterly to complete the trilogy, I had made extensive notes for my third post. Because I regard my first two installments, the first in particular, as among the most gratifying pieces I have written, I fear taking up the third now without the benefit of short-term memory's immediacy. I fear more, however, failing to document the rest of my travels, given that I have my notes. I'm going to try to find my way back to last year's voice, and summon as much of my memory as I can, to complete this story. If I partially succeed in reentering that narrative, I'll be satisfied. As this represents a continuation of a prior piece, I hope you'll take the time to read from the beginning.

To refresh your memory, in addition to my prior posts, here are some great shots of the park from an elevated perspective, which convey the scale of the installation better than any other photos I've seen, and which I credit in full for the photos contained in this post, which are shamelessly but respectfully borrowed.

I soon found myself at the Alice in Wonderland sculpture by the Conservatory Water, where inscriptions from the Jabberwocky ring Alice and her companions.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Here, children, unruffled by the at once lush and spartan spectacle of the Gates, occupied themselves as millions of children have before, crawling upon and about Alice and her stool of mushrooms, leaving their undetectable but indelible molecular imprint on the bronze celebration. At the pond, someone had erected an odd optical device that facilitated precise reproduction by hand of whatever the device captured, not unlike a dauggereotype. I tried to understand, amid the throng, the workings of the contraption but found myself persistently uncomprehending. The artist's eyes wandered from his task, and fixed me in their trajectory for a moment, standing near his shoulder as I was; they were nether friendly nor un-, but the mute concourse highlighted my sense of detachment, otherness.

I wandered on, heading north past Tavern on the Green.

In a tunnel en route to the Great Lawn, a saxophonist wept into his horn. I dropped a dollar or two into his case without breaking stride. Within certain aesthetic boundaries, I unfailingly contribute to street musicians. There are few things I miss more in Pittsburgh than these generous souls who shape and texture the impersonal congress of urban streets, fixating on the exception: the saxophonist on the Roberto Clemente Bridge after Pirates games, the stately gentleman blowing Christmas carols on Walnut Street as the holiday nears.

Upon nearing the far side of the tunnel, tenebrous and humid, I turned. The musician was etched in darkness against the day's brilliance, one saffron canopy rimming the arched opening at the far end, his body arched back in the archetypal saxophonist pose, until he stooped toward a dolorous bar.

Joy, pure, undiminished, swept me up in its arms, an emotion almost incapacitating in its wealth and power, physical and unrelenting. I released my body, moments ago feverish and ailing, to the moment's nearly sexual carress, indulged its attendant frisson, and thought to myself: "Preserve this moment. Hold it. Store it somewhere safe." This one moment, among the most beautiful I had ever experienced, was nevertheless disarmingly transient, a smiling beauty on a train going the other way, an inspiration dropped at the frontier of slumber never to be recovered, as imminent as the next breath and as diaphonous as lurking suspicion.

When the moment had passed and I resumed my ill health, my flagging energy and exterior pressures attending the passage of time and the undignified banality of evening commitments ascendant, I left the tunnel and rejoined the Gates' inexorable march north.

Nearing the Great Lawn, I found myself at an adult playground of sorts. On half a paved rectangle, energetic souls played a decidedly urban variety of soccer. They played well, and their competitiveness mated to their collegiality presented a compelling narrative to which I momentarily acquiesced, pretending to myself that I could parse their unfamiliar continental interjections and jibes.

All afternoon, I had been cognizant of New York's polyglot splendor. In my quasi-delirium, my attitude perhaps corrupted by Pittsburgh's less colorful discourse, I reached certain conclusions:

1. All foreign languages sounds like russian.
2. Except german and french, which sound like german and french.
3. Except french sometimes sounds like russian.

My monolinguilism, disregarding for a moment that my love for the sound of language has led me to acquire respectable aptitudes for the elocution of Italian, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon, each of which I read to myself from time to time (Latin I find where I can, usually in bits and pieces; the alliterative allure of Anglo-Saxon leads me often to Beowulf, and often spins me toward the more accessible related rhytms of Dylan Thomas; and in Italian I read, sometimes, from the left leaves of Pinsky's side-by side translation of Dante's Inferno).

I cannot speak to its dimensions, nor can I discern the heart of its appeal, but there is great fun in watching people at play. The footballers shared their square with a claque of roller disco dancers, one of whom was almost painfully sexy, ears braced by headphones, hips beckoning in the prelingual lexicon of uncomplicated lust. Her gyrations and arcs intersected the corresponding trajectories of a portly bearded man with a palpable taste for science fiction and fantasy on a Segway, whose mastery of his conveyance rivaled the dancer's mastery of her vintage skates. inwardly, I cheered his enterprising spirit. "We from-afar lovers of beautiful women from afar recognize the cleverness of our peers." A handful of others winged around the outside of an informal circle around these two, but the performance, arresting in the same way as the soccer, was a grand pas de deux.

Moving on, I scaled a low hill, Gates anticipating my progress up a crowded and meandering path, snow banked on either side; we marched patiently in twos. Midway up the path, a whirr predicted the swift weaving passage of the gentleman on the Segway, whose grace in fjording the assembly of devotees was notable in its own right. Freed from music, and football, and disco, my attention returned once again to the simple satisfaction of the innumerable Gates, brilliant in the sun, swinging to grant the wind passage, hanging over our heads like death itself, or the prospect of better days, flapping affably in primitive affirmation.

The Great Lawn was Great, a Lawn, a prairie of white, fenced in for its own safety, its grass hibernating under a largely undisturbed laminate of snow, and the Gates were dense here, the crowds restive but respectful, as though the various unlikely tributaries had fed into one massive, saffron river. There I observed the most singular phenomenon of all: The Mummers. Indeed, my first bona fides mummers outside of history and literature.

At the southern edge of the Lawn, pursuing the onlookers in an easterly direction, masked dancers adorned the Gates, standing on the slate bases, arms draped intimately about the orange frames, veiled and clad in uniform black. There were dozens of them; my mind reeled. In the February chill, they were dressed in jeans, long-sleeved tees, hooded sweatshirts and jackets, coats and parkas, but the unifying theme was perfect blackness, like night, articulated cut-outs, people subverted to a concept. Their movements, slow, mellifluous, cascaded amongst them like a rumor, mimicked the movements of the saffron drapes overhead. A flag would twitch, lift, and fly the breeze, and the physical interlocutor poised in its shadow would interpret its flight with a fluidity that bespoke formal training. The movement would be echoed and modified, dancer by dancer, the length of the visible Gates.

Once again overwhelmed with unmitigated pleasure, I paused, sliding to the side of the path and a row of benches, not quite deaf to the pleased and astonished commentary of those passing by and belatedly discovering the mummers in situ, who were just subtle enough to overlook in a crowd, if one were prone to overlook things. A welcoming end of park bench revealed itself to me a few dancers into the line, and I accepted its invitation. A couple sat to my right, engaged in what appeared to be a nice conversation, and directly opposite the bench, across a turgid flow of people, gamboled the mummer who'd demanded my attention, petite, shapely, and fluid.

I was content to furnish what was left to my imagination. Beneath her veil, a suggestion of eyeglasses; beneath her coat, a suggestion of comeliness; beneath the sky, a suggestion of order in chaos, aluminum and nylon precisely and delicately framed against the stumbling flow of people beneath; and as backdrop, the fluid tracings of anonymous dancers, chilled but unperturbed, endeavoring to couple with an event larger than any one person or assemblage of persons. Vainglorious futility has never inspired me more. On the bench, I quietly looked on, aiming to etch my personal dancer's movements in my most permanent memory, her simple black jeans and sneakers belying a more profound elegance and inspiration.

Drinking in the vision of the dancers limning the Gates progress, I only belatedly woke to the gravaman of the conversation beside me, lovers severing their bond, sinew by sinew, prospecting for common ground amid such beauty and consequence, blind to the surround. Their desperation, their fear, struck a chord; how could I, perpetually single, not empathize, not wonder at the clumsy dance of two autonomies abandoning their self-abnegating pursuit of divine cooperation. Neither wept, but I felt as though I might, as emotional as the afternoon had made me. Across the river, my car, my family, awaited me, but I was miles, epochs, paradigms and aesthetics away, beyond reach, alone amid the throng of onlookers. Distant.

Again, I found it a labor of Herculean dimension to move. Having fallen momentarily in love with my own personal mummer at the end of the line, I was struck anew by the profundity of the larger spectacle, or meta-spectacle perhaps, as I plunged deeper into the display. Finally, deep within the mummers' realm, I could not see a gate undressed in either direction, and I had lost count of them in the twenties.

At the end, the path forked, and an end to the mummery revealed itself. Again, at the end, I paused, intending to photograph the font of the performance. As I turned, ten yards or so past the last mummer, I observed a woman, shapely in flowing white skirt and ostentatiously unostentatious jewelry, abandon her company and succumb to the dance. In the middle of the path, oblivious to those whose paths she interrupted, she slid ably down an invisible pole to the pavement beneath, eyes closed, brow turned skyward, enamored of the moment, as was I of her. By the time I had set and leveled my camera, however, she had finished, grounded by her beau, perhaps. For the second time in minutes, I had fallen guilelessly in love; I envied her companion, who had watched her performance with a regrettable detachment, that he had found someone possessed of such spontaneity and indifference to others' regard, someone whom the delightful incidents and accidents of just being here might captivate for a spell, the hypnosis of fearless subjugation to a moment. A woman who might, of a Sunday morning, pick his hand up from the February breakfast table cluttered with newspring and say, "Let's go to the beach in East Hampton. Today. Now. Where are your shoes?"

Not for the first time, I envied the secret lives of others. Mine, being no secret to me, seldom competes with the lives I imagine for others.

Still, though, distant engagements pressed, and I willed my feet into motion. By now, I had long exhausted the clock I originally had set for myself, bearing in mind plans and a desire not to exacerbate my incipient adenovirus (as it would be diagnosed a couple of weeks later, after its persistence drove me to my GP). Gathering speed, I soon found myself yet further north, at the Pineton, the soughing pines yielding their quiet symphony to the more insistent and unmistakable shriek of chained swings, carrying their riders to and fro, their perforations of the quiet like a chamber ensemble of flutes and strings misbowed. Long before I saw the swings, I recognized their song, which conjured a flood of childhood memories of one particularly notable New Jersey park; I felt an elementary gratification when they came into view off to the left, over another snowy expanse.

Nearing the end of my journey, I found myself at the foot of the reservoir, somewhere in the 80s, the ground muddy and trampled in a crazy quilt of frenzied impressions, many holding stagnant water rimed with snow and ice and mud. Around the reservoir, the Gates were strangely absent. I knew from the map that they continued north toward Harlem, but, for the first time all day, few were in view, mimicking the sporadic scrub of a desert expanse instead of the prolific density of a tumescent forest. Across the reservoir, as I continued my westward progress along its southern shore, I espied the Guggenheim, and its unsettling helical profile, coiling in squat insouciance between its loftier neighbors.

I exited the park just south of 90th street, reflexively looking south to espy the building in which an ex-girlfriend's grandparents once lived, in rent-controlled splendor overlooking the park. This far north, the crowds had dwindled, most onlookers evidently entering, as I had, at the Park's southern edge but few venturing as far north as I had. I grieved that I lacked time, having come so close, to complete my progress uptown.

As soon as I crossed Park to the downtown side, I spotted a cab heading my way, its light advertising its vacancy, and raised my hand calmly, recalling the folly of the impatient, or the ignorant, who never seem to figure out the Boolean simplicity of the medallion's rooftp signboard -- medallion number lit for availability, and dark to signal occupancy. The car slid to the curb, and I entered, enveloped in pleasure but happy to be in a heated vehicle and off my feet.

"Grand Central," I said. The hack, a slight brown man with a dark mustache, met my eyes briefly in the rearview mirror, signaled, and pulled into traffic, nodding affirmation to some tacit inquiry. He didn't speak, and I was grateful. It would be some time, I knew, before I would welcome conversation.

I recalled bits and pieces from my travels: in the southern part of the park, the sun high and the snow blazing, a pompous queen imploring his companion, Oliver, "Come here! Look at this composition."

I recalled my brief encounter, in one of the tunnels, with three young men who labored to lift what appeared to be a surplus slate Gate-base from the top of a stack of three. Cords protruded from their necks, and in a fit of pique, oddly envious of their endeavor, I silently joined them, providing what proved to be a crucial fourth pair of hands. We lifted the base a few inches, looked up inquiringly at each other as though to ask, "What now?" and finding in our mute, strained smiles sufficient answer, restored the base gently to its resting place.

Jostling forward in car lengths as we neared the Park's southern edge, brakes squealed around us, and I retreated into their polyphony, remembering the arid shrieks of the swings near the Pineton, wishing myself back inside the Park. I worried my solitude: would I prefer to be sharing this anachronistic bench seat with someone who might attend to my thoughts, such as they were, and offer his or her own?

Regret, too, made an appearance: what, really, awaited me across the river that I couldn't have avoided, making my excuses from the heart of the Park, quietly radioing apologies from amid a stand of trees, or of Gates, adverting to the mesmeric power of the installation. Would anyone not have forgiven me?

Then it dawned on me: I had never answered to my satisfaction one critical question: Why orange?


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