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.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

The Gates I

-- It was not originally my intention to serialize this, but as it turns out I have quite a lot to say. The hour grows late. And in any event, this would be entirely too long for a single post. Look for The Gates II (and III, if necessary) in the next few days.

It is too soon for Central Park to be filled with color, too early for rivers of smiling faces like seasonal tributaries, for tandem bikes and women dressed in vivid explosions of layered garments; crossing the bike path south of Sheeps Meadow is fraught with peril, too soon. Tell that to Christo, to Jeanne-Claude, to Mayor Bloomberg and the pushcart vendors who welcomed throngs of famished customers at Bethesda Fountain, the musicians lurking silhouetted in the tunnels, ends braced in saffron, jamming with the time-worn brick, their bags and cases brimming over with donations; tell that to the hacks sitting in traffic along Central Park East, their meters clocking the time standing still in seconds and dimes while beaming, ruddy-cheeked suburbanites hold hands in the back seat and ask questions that begin with "Did you see . . .?.

The words amazing, awesome, and their kin are held up for consideration and discarded for want of scale. The words singular, magnificent, momentous, warrant further exploration.

I entered at Columbus Circle, having dismissed my cabbie two blocks south once I realized the cruelty I would inflict by demanding that he deliver me to the Circle, as I had originally instructed. He turned the corner onto 54th and as he took my money -- Here's eight, keep it -- he smiled over his shoulder at me, bright teeth in a face of umber shining at its promontories, and thanked me, gratifying my courtesy. I shrugged, said something about not wanting to be stuck in traffic either, then stepped onto the crowded street, regretting after a moment the way my response might have deflected his kindness.

The Circle itself is enclosed in plywood under renovation at the foot of the two gleaming parallelogram towers of the new Time-Warner Center, a design lifted off the cover of a pulp science fiction novel with the same stropped appeal. A slow-motion riot of cars lurched and heaved in feet and yards their sisyphian circumscriptions. Beyond them, the Park entrance opened wide to swallow a gumbo of gawkers, a people paella. The circle outside the pillars denoting the entrance was a tumble of makeshift souvenir stands, free enterprise at its finest, tables and wire-frame screens draped in black keepsake t-shirts, piled high with postcards, overhung with framed pictures splashed with enough orange to drag the blue aggrieved from winter. Behind them the granite gothic obelisks, muted tan royals lording the rivers of site-seers, a thicket of fallow limbs and branches beyond, darker gray against the cloudy sky, and a mingling chaos of saffron gates limp in the still air, dull in the gloom, articulating inside the park into discreet paths, the nearest trudging east along the foot of the park toward the Plaza Hotel, F.A.O. Schwartz, the East River, Queens, the ocean.

Even at the Park's entrance, my pretzel interested me as much as what I saw -- best. street pretzel. ever. -- and I practiced mindfulness in refusing to regret my stingyness with the mustard, now two blocks behind, at the cart owned by the smiling Indian man who preferred to charge me $1.44 than make fifty cents change. Even after a thirty-minute drive, traffic, the obstacles of Hoboken (the land of the double parkers), the PATH train's ennervating dive beneath the Hudson, the 33rd Street station's sturm und drang, I had yet to adjust to my own silence. Seldom am I silent: at home, I natter to myself and the cats constantly, and out I'm usually with others or simply gregarious with strangers; only rarely must I cope with the press and pry of others where I prefer to hold my tongue. While in New York, of all places, I could air my most alienating thoughts and attract only the fleeting and divided attention of overstimulated tourists -- as I crossed Broadway before entering the Park, an old black man with a white beard in tufts and pulled low over his furrowed brow a black hat drooping at its crest as if for want of skull blurted out as we converged "not how it's s'posed to be 's what i told you" -- I am nevertheless self-conscious as the average bear.

Inside -- I seem to have lost my way, and backtracked a block or so, and I beg your pardon -- there was a moment while I finished my pretzel and its smudged yellow necklace to eye the beckoning installations along each of three paths departing the Circle, absently attending the white noise of a hundred conversations and negotiations, trying to tune my ears to their many frequencies, scrutinizing surreptitiously the expressions of others like a card player gauging his opponents' reactions to their hands. Next, I removed from my bag my minimalist (and increasingly anachronistic) SLR 35mm, and hung it about my neck, removed the lens cap. Eye to eyepiece, scanning the Park like a widow the sea, I clicked several warm-up photos, each time bedeviled by the absence of an unimpeded line of sight, struggling in vain to think compositionally, pressing the button only to hear the pencil snap of the heavy shutter and for the ratcheting satisfaction of thumbing the arm and letting it snap back into position.

I'm avoiding The Gates, I know. These words are like those initial photographs -- quite possibly worthless, but shades on a spectrum I must traverse, dull, middling hues of little distinction at that, an exercise or prologue. And anyway, I realize now that my reluctance to be carried away was more a defense than a legitimate response. Part of me hesitated then as a part of me has hesitated on the rim of falling in love, pausing to turn over and over a new and unnerving potentiality, wondering what shoe might be poised to drop, wary.

I was galvanized into motion when I spotted a minder wearing a gray apron over orange, and handing out small squares of the synthetic material hanging in The Gates, looking vulnerable and small beneath the first gate along the trail paralleling the Park's southern wall. My mother had told me that they were giving swatches away; I figured to get one. Someone standing in the circle that gathered around the white-haired and aproned benefactor quipped to a friend, "Those are selling on ebay for twenty bucks." The old lady did well, for having only one arm free; in the other, she held a gray staff perhaps seven feet tall adorned by a tennis ball -- the universal signifier for the monitors around the Park. Occasionally, the saffron overhead, nudged by the penurious breeze, apologetically wrapped its arms around the green ball. Once it did so more mischievously, twin pseudopods reaching around the ball to touch behind it, enclosing it in ephemeral lava lamp teardrops.

Upon receiving my sacrament, my swatch of saffron (which I slipped into my back pocket; a fair enough place, I figured, for transubstantiated egoism), I turned back toward the circle at the mouth of the Park's southwest corner. I would enter the Park properly, I decided, following The Gates as close to north-northeast as possible, away from traffic and the sawtooth grin of the posh residential towers, up the Ramble and into the Park's viscera.

Read The Gates II


Blogger matt said...

Great part I. I went and saw "National Treasure" last night (don't ask), and there were some great shots of NYC and Philly that made me all east-coast homesick.

1:27 PM  

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