Friday, July 23, 2010

Art, Baklava, Manhattan, and Friends

I was basically midway through the course; indeed, we were almost finished. My room in Washington Heights was clean and comfortable. Aside from the fact that the neighborhood shops opened at eight and closed at nine, it was all right. The problem with the store hours is that my hours were 7 to roughly 10, which left little time for things like grocery shopping, but after three weeks I’d learned to make due and work around it.

On waking up on my last Sunday morning in NYC I had a lot of grading to look forward to, which I was not looking forward to. A mail check revealed that a friend doing a show somewhere outside of Manhattan. This meant that her husband (one of my best friends from college) would be within reach were I to get on a train and head outside of Manhattan. I wasn't sure about leaving Manhattan, as from what I have been given to understand that world stops at the end of Manhattan and you are entering whole other countries; a passport may in fact be required to leave the center of the city. Regardless, I figured it would be worth a try to see what else was going on in NYC and what else might be interesting.

Being up early I went to the local coffee shop, got all my grading done by two, and realized there was time to be killed between now and the trip outside of Manhattan. I decided to go to MOMA as I keep hearing about it. I enjoy art and figured this may indeed be a good time. Unlike the Art Institute an entrance fee is required and it’s pretty steep. Although Chicago's Art Institute has a recommended donation (you can actually donate less then what is recommended to get in) of seven dollars, at MOMA it was twenty, flat, no negotiation.

Except I noticed on the sign this thing about having a valid student ID.

It just so happens that I had had this conversation during my first week of teaching.

“Would you like an ID?”

“I don’t really need one, but sure, I guess.”

“Well, let’s make you one anyway, so the guard doesn’t give you a hard time.”

“Sure that seems fine.”

*flashing camera lights*

“So, I have the ID’s; there's only one problem.”

“Okay, what’s the problem?”

“Well, your ID here...well I didn’t have any teacher ID’s, so I just made you a student ID.”

“That’s fine, it’s not that big a deal, the guard has been pretty reasonable, and I don’t think anyone will actually notice.”

“Okay, sorry about that, here you go.”

I looked at the cost of entering with a valid student ID. Twelve dollars.



“Hi, I’d like a pass; here is my student ID.”

The art was good. I’m a fan of modern art: Rothko, Pollack, Dali, and Picasso turn most of my wheels with their interpretations on realism, abstract, love, death, life. Life.

Standing in front of Jackson Pollack’s Masterpiece One, Number 31, was awe inspiring. When I walked into the room and saw it I almost started to cry, I could feel the emotion bubbling up under the surface and there it was on canvas on huge canvas, easily fifteen feet long and roughly six or seven high. It felt as large at the world; it was so other, so extraordinary.

I like to get close to paintings when I go to a museum, as close as I can get without getting thrown out. I sometimes put my nose near this work so I can could smell what was there to smell, but more it is seeing what the artist did. On this canvas you can see his fingerprints. You can see stray hairs from the brushes. A long straight strand, maybe Pollock’s own, stuck on the canvas. There are sneaker prints here and there, shoes walked across the canvass when the paint was layered. Here are the results. I wonder what kind of shoes he was wearing to make this impression. That the artist can walk fearlessly across a work that people could be arrested for touching now. Fingerprints decorate throughout. There are fingerprints everywhere on the canvass. It’s chaotic and hectic, a swirl rapturous, desirable. I could sit there all day and meditate on it.

MOMA held some other surprises and wonders. A small collection of Marguerite, a little Dali, some classic Picasso sketches of ribald sexuality. And Klimt. I stood at the Klimt awhile. Not the stunning Judith (and only two pieces), but I got as close as I could just to see the glint of the artist living there creating within that time. It was lovely and I enjoyed it a great deal.

Afterward I still had some time before my trip out of Manhattan. I did bring my passport just in case, for fear that border guards may feel a need to forbid my exit to other parts of NYC without it. I figured since I had time I might try to get some coffee to keep me peppy. As I was walking the warm of the evening was picking up a bit. I started to think of baklava.

Yes, baklava.

My mind became fixated on baklava.

I wanted it.

I needed it.

Sticky sweet crusted walnuts in honey on phylo dough playing on my tongue and firing up all my sense. Cool honey running through my system to cool the other parts of my blood warmed by the sticky summer sun and humid clouds that hung over the city since my arrival.

Yes, baklava.

As I walked I found a deli and I thought to myself this looked like the sort of place that might have baklava. When the door opened I heard a booming “How you doin’?” from one of the chefs behind the counter. It made me smile, being the first “howdy” I’d had so far in the city. I, walked toward the cooler and saw it there. It did not look like Chicago baklava from Greek Town, but it looked all right. It looked like it could satisfy my craving with a little ice coffee.

I ordered, grabbed the tray, and sat down with my acquired goodies. Chef “Howyadoin” looked at me from behind the counter and smiled and nodded his head. I smiled back as I cut into the baklava and opened my mouth. He smiled again as I put the piece of honey-coated walnut and phylo into my mouth. He continued to watch as, in a moment of horror, I realized that what had touched my tongue represented all that was wrong with the world. Before I could even close my mouth I wanted it out, this outrage against baklava, crime against desserts everywhere. It was foul and hideous and I forced my mouth to close around it even though every tastebud in my body screamed at me to spit it out because Howyadoin was still staring at me and smiling from the counter.

I smiled around the abomination against taste that was riding my tongue and reached desperately for a napkin. I tried not to choke on the wretchedness that was tickling my tongue and inciting a riot with my gag reflex. I tried not to make eye contact with Howyadoin because I was desperate for him to look away so I could spit this atrocious thing out of my mouth. And as soon as I caught a break, two chilling, gut-squirming moments later I did spit it out. Howyadoin made eye contact with me again and I was sure that he must have seen me. I was worried, but smiled, drank my coffee (which was better but not stellar), and read my book in the air conditioning for a few minutes.

I waited for an appropriate amount of time to pass so that I felt I could finish my coffee and leave the shop and toss out the uneaten baklava and napkin without anyone being the wiser. As the coffee neared completion I packed up my things. Howyadoin had been nodding at me during my coffee drinking, in between loud bouts of “How you doin’” as customers came in. I put all my things together and prepared to head towards the trashcan with tray in hand. I looked around but could find no trash.

Howyadoin from behind the counter first called out “You can just leave it there” but then changed to “actually come here I need to talk to you.”

I figured I was busted, he saw me spit out the baklava and wanted to confront me about it. There was nothing I could do, like the baklava I was just going to have to smile and suffer through it. I took a deep breath and walked up to him, handing him the tray.

“Where you from?”

“Chicago, actually.”

“So, how long you been in the city?”

“About three weeks. I’m teaching here.”

“That’s nice. So…what are you doing at 2:30 in the morning?”

“Excuse me?”

“I get off at two thirty, why don’t you come back here then?”

“I’m….what…I’m no, I’m going….I ‘m leaving Manhattan, I’m…” I’m completely unprepared for where this conversation has suddenly gone. I mean, I was all ready to get yelled at for the baklava but had not prepared myself for a proposition.

“Where you livin’?”

“I’m, uptown, but I’m going now. I’m leaving Manhattan.” Somehow I feel that leaving Manhattan should be enough to terrify any true blooded New Yorker out of talking with me. The thought of leaving Manhattan is supposed to instill dread into the heart of most Manhattan dwellers.

“Cool. You should come back here when you finish your show. I get off at 2:30.”

“I’m sorry, I’ll be in bed at 2:30.”


Hopefully, I think.

“Look, I’m really flattered, really, but I have to go. I’m leaving Manhattan.”

“So, how about another night?” To myself I think that perhaps if the baklava had been better I might have considered it, but as I have the baklava to go on as a standard in this situation, that and some freaking pride, I just smile again and turn and leave.

Exiting Manhattan did not require crossing armed borders. My friends were surprised at my turning up at the event, as the one time we had tried to make plans they had bailed on me. At the shocked stammering of “How did you know we were here?” I replied “If you didn’t want to be stalked you shouldn’t post your whereabouts on Facebook.”

The show was good. The return trip home a little longer than usual.

The bed was thankfully empty and I slept peacefully with the anticipation of the last week of work the only thing on my mind.

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