The sky is white today. I walk under it some twenty blocks one way, then back, looking up most of the way. Fifth Avenue is lined with 19th century buildings that are generic at street level, each defined by the stores that rent their feet, but most are capped with some sort of interesting cornice. Carved figures, repeating motifs of coiled leaves, plaques commemorating business closed for decades; squat water towers aim skyward from their rocket launchers.
The trees are partially undressed these days. Through the blocked-in masses of the remaining leaves, branches jut like umbrella ribs. Every so often, an abandoned plastic bag or the remains of a fistful of birthday balloons dangle and sway.
All these shapes — lumps and sticks and lines — dance and reshuffle themselves as I move down the street. The planes glide past and the negative shapes undulate and regroup themselves. The city draws and redraws itself on the white sheet of the sky.
It’s late and I’m exhausted from a long day which culminated in something a little tedious but exciting: revising a new piece I’ve done for the Op-Ed page of the NY Times. It’ll run this Sunday.
While I was drawing this, after dropping Jack off at school and sitting under the Washington Arch with its two newly restored statues of the general/president/slave owner/lumberjack, I heard something soft land on the ground ahead. Then, through the proscenium of the Arch, a man strode onto the stage – a 30ish black man in a tuxedo, sans the jacket, which he’d just thrown at the arch. He yelled at the top of his lungs: “Fuck you, George Washington!” Fuck you!” Then he picked up his jacket and strode offstage.
Another morning in New York City.
I drew the lines with my Rapidoliner and inked in the trees with Dr. Martin’s.
Sunday afternoon, I was walking through Astor Place when I saw a man in a familiar position, hunched over a big old moleskine, a pen twitching between his fingers. I knew, from across the road, that he was drawing in a journal.
As I approached, I suddenly realized it was my old partner, Tom Kane. We’d worked together in the mid-80s, dreaming up advertising campaigns for Life magazine, for cigarettes, for Barnes & Noble— we even did a very early rap song about IBM (“We were the mothers who invented high tech, now everybody wants to play Star Trek, but there just ain”t room for all that crew, all the wildest ideas come out of Big Blue, etc…).
Although I never saw him actually draw, I had seen a few pieces in his apartment, near-photorealistic paintings of pop icons, horses, and women. He obviously had a lot of talent but he expressed it on the sly. We’d lost touch over the next decade, but hooked up for a long, candid noodle lunch three years ago. Then I, in my executive haze, lost touch with him again. And now here was Tom drawing in a moleskine. What a weird coincidence.
Tom looked up from his page and, seemingly unsurprised to see me, immediately told me that he had been bought multiple copies of my last book and been lurking around this blog for a while, my book, all of which had inspired him to start keeping his first ever journal. I was floored. It was so strange to find someone who I knew and admired as a very creative and talented person hooking up with the Everyday Matters crew.
Well, as you can see from the drawing Tom was doing at the time, he sees very well. Look at how specific each window is, not just a row of squares but the very particular windows, one by one. His crosshatching is rhythmic without being monotonous, reminding of my all time favorite, r.crumb. I also love the way he fills the page, how he uses the negative space of the sky and integrates his text right into the scene. It’s a great drawing and a beautiful exercise in mediation.
Tom is a very imaginative art director. If you’ve ever seen those wild, bubble headed girls in the ads for Steve Madden shoes, you’ve seen what Tom does in his day job. We dropped over at his place and he showed me dozens of fantastic paintings, photo collages, drawings and rows of tomato cans. I could sense that he is being called more and more to devote his energy to making things that express his passions rather than peddling ladies’ shoes. I hope he follows that call.
In the meantime, I have a new journaling buddy to roam the streets with. What a happy accident it was, running into him.
I was riding my bike down the West Side yesterday afternoon and passed Ground Zero. It’s a big construction site these days and, like a typical New Yorker, I just breezed past.
For some reason, this time I noticed the West Street Building on the south west corner and I stopped. I looked at it and I saw it for the first time. It’s a landmark building, built in 1905 by Cass Gilbert who also designed my all-time downtown favorite, the Woolworth Building.
While all of the modern buildings round the site are either gone, rebuilt or heavily shrouded, the West Street building was openly wounded. Its Parisian mansard roof is completely draped in black steel mesh. Large pieces of its limestone facade are smashed or cracked off. Its terra cotta tiles, installed for fireproofing, helped to protect it from the burning columns that fell off 2 WTC but took a beating. Ornamental busts around the front door were decapitated. Through the empty windows I could see rubble in what once an elegant interior.
This building was so stately and built to endure. Now, it stands with gaping holes. My instinctive reaction was an angry sadness that the people who did this knew nothing about our city, didn’t understand the significance of the history they erased. Not that it would have influenced them. The Taliban well understood the history of the giant Bamiyan Buddhas they dynamited in Afghanistan, when they kicked off the culture wars by destroying some lovely art.But of course who of us understand the history of the buildings our government has destroyed in Afghanistan and Iraq? Not to mention the stories of all those lives erased forever. It’s all so shitty.
While our friends in Washington pass the buck, I realized how I have been dulled to the enormity of what has happened to my city and this world. I follow the news closely and yet I have formed a thick carapace to protect me from the effects of all this horror. Noticing that injured building all of a sudden made me disappointed in myself that I had not seen what was right there in front of me, had missed the lesson and the beauty that was lost. So I stayed for a while by its bedside and studied the extent of the damage.
I know I’m not saying anything that isn’t trite or been said so often before. But the skies were the same aching blue I remember from that September day and it all came flooding back. I need to see better no matter how it stings.
(If you’re enjoying this, and would like to depress yourself even further, check out the tiny movie I made eleven days after 9/11. P.S. The West Street building is under going gradual renovation and will eventually become expensive apartments, overlooking the banks of the World Trade Center.