When I was fourteen, I auditioned for the School of American Ballet and was accepted. The school was too far from my home to travel back and forth everyday, so I lived in the dormitory at Lincoln Center during the week and travelled back to Long Island on the weekends. Every Sunday night, after a family dinner, my mother would drive me into Manhattan to drop me off. This was a trip that I began to despise, as my weeks at the school were lonely, tiring, and stressful; however, the trip over the 59th Street Bridge was a moment of my week that I came to love.
As the car pulsed and hummed over the steel deck roadway, the amber lights overhead dropped steady woodpecker kisses on the dashboard, and for about five seconds the car lined up with the curtain-free apartment building windows on York Avenue, providing tiny glimpses at the lives of those city dwellers. I would only have time enough to take in the corner of a chandelier, a crowded bookshelf, or a bottle of shampoo sitting on the edge of a bathroom window. The scene was unnervingly familiar, like the staged living rooms I entered only through the warped curve of the television set. Nevertheless, I was filled with wonder about these people. Sometimes you could catch one of them as they walked from one room to another - proudly, momentarily, on display to any and all commuters on the bridge.
Perhaps it is appropriate that upon entering Manhattan, a person can begin to observe people through windows. In fact, open windows are common in the city, where the view outside and inside of them seem to be equally important. As Ben Highmore, professor of cultural studies at the University of Sussex, once stated in Cityscapes: Cultural Readings in the Material and Symbolic City, windows offer “the opportunity to see and be seen, and to watch yourself being watched." This nonchalant attitude toward privacy shows that New Yorkers are proud of what they have, and do not fear what anyone else might think of them. Or, it might also be a sign of the comfort and security they feel within in the tight confines of their apartment buildings, where they feel untouchable.
At the start of my year alone in the city, my aunt Kathy decided that I needed to be shown around town. My father’s next-youngest sister, she quickly removed herself from Sunnyside, Queens, and nestled into the heart of the Upper East Side. She put herself through a doctoral program in psychology and worked as an X-ray technician to pay the rent. The first places we needed to go, she explained, were The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bloomingdale’s, and The Plaza. Here were the key things to remember about each one:
#1: The Met: “You can get in for a quarter”
It was a hot and steamy August afternoon in Manhattan. There was an invisible cloud of jumping molecules around our heads that lulled us into a state of panting (we were people who cursed the entire summer season). Nevertheless, we climbed the epic stairway leading to the entrance of the Metropolitan Museum, past the shutterbug tourists and giddy student groups, and entered the beautiful Grand Hall. If the see-through apartments that litter the night sky reveal a display of privilege in the city, this climb certainly tells us something else: the artwork seems hidden away in this museum, and the building requires that you go on a pilgrimage to find it.
Once you enter the Grand Hall, a “noble” space typical of the Beaux-Arts architectural style, you are confronted with the largest bouquet of fresh flowers you have ever seen, set lovingly in a 2-foot-high urn by designer Remco van Vliet. Then, there is another tremendous staircase (I later learned, upon returning a decade later with a double stroller, you can also find the elevators way over in the North Wing, to the left of the Egyptian art). Kathy whispered to me, “Can you believe this used to be someone’s home?”
“Really?” I whispered back. It’s not true, but I thought yes, if my mother lived here she would decorate with flowers.
“Now, the key thing to remember,” Kathy insisted, “is that absolutely anybody can come here at any time. I come here sometimes just to relax! You don’t even need to look at the art. You might just want to get away from the heat. You can give them a quarter if you like.”
She wanted to prove her point, so we walked up to the counter where I found it printed at the bottom in small, classy letters: To help cover the costs of exhibitions, we ask that you please pay the full recommended amount. How odd, it seemed, that this tremendous place would be asking us for money. We traded two dull quarters for two bendable lapel clips – tangerine circle beds for the white Centaur-font M – and we were in.
#2: Bloomingdale’s: “You don’t have to buy anything”
From there, we walked downtown to 59th Street, where the Bloomingdale’s store owns an entire city block. As you approach, the first thing you notice is a number of brightly colored flags blowing in the wind, representing various countries from around the world: France, Israel, Canada, and the U.S.A. How were they chosen? What do they have to do with shopping at Bloomingdale’s? The doors seem to be original to the building and they surprise you as you are walking down the street. In comparison to the neoclassical architecture of the Met, this entrance is far less grand, yet one’s accessibility to the objects of desire is similarly distant. Once inside, you are ushered to side staircases, which act as lacquered and lighted tunnels and upon ascension they reveal to you a world of sparkle and glitz.
Kathy led the way to the cosmetics counter and we were sprayed with perfume and gazed upon our shiny, heat-swollen faces in adjustable oval mirrors, just large enough to reflect one person at a time. I remember the shock of looking in the mirror as an ambiguous feeling, at once limited and free. My lack of means, a beauty unattainable, and Catholic feelings of guilt and shame, made this public and commercial space a location of confrontation with myself.
Kathy disagreed. She insisted, once again, that we could be in this place, just as we were, without buying anything. Part of the goal, she believed, was simply occupying the space. “We can just spend time here,” she explained, as we took the escalator to the upper floors and caught sight of our identical blue-grey eyes in the angled mirrors that seemed to cover every inch of the wall.
#3: The Plaza: “Just act like you belong”
By the time we walked from 3rd Avenue to Central Park South, we were in desperate need of a bathroom and that is how we ended up at our final destination. Kathy explained, “The Plaza is wonderful because they have the most beautiful bathrooms in the city. When we walk in we will just pretend that we are here visiting and we have a room upstairs. Let’s tell ourselves we were out shopping and we just stopped back in to get something.” I checked my posture and asked myself, who would I be if I were a guest here?
The entrance stairs were carpeted in red, and we followed the path all the way inside, trailing the edges of the dining room to a dead-end where an attendant opened the doors that allowed us in. The space was shocking white, and the fixtures were yellow gold. After washing my hands, an elderly woman with air-dried, raisin fingers handed me a starchy-white towel. Kathy placed a dollar on the tray and we walked back out, taking the first exit onto the street.
We both came to the city for something that was better than what we had. We were so impressed by the beauty and power of Western art forms, such as ballet, painting, and sculpture. We weren’t really artists, but we might have wanted to be, had we the courage. We were observers, of art and privilege; I had a sense that I could observe through glass windows, but Kathy wanted to teach me how to be among the privileged, even though it might have meant pretending. In that way, we were both subversive occupiers of space, albeit legally so. We thought we might fit in.
Now I take my family – my husband and two children – to the Metropolitan Museum every year on February 12th because it marks the anniversary of Kathy’s death. I’ve turned that space into a place of worship because Kathy was not buried anywhere that I can go to visit, and when I think of Kathy I immediately think of the main hall, with a pianist playing, friends and family gathering, and the relics of the past mingling with the visitors of the present. For me, Kathy transformed that museum into a place where the past and the present are one, and she can still be with me.
Kathy was murdered by a colleague’s former patient in her first-floor office on 79th Street, in a space where I’m sure she felt as untouchable as anyone else who worked or lived inside a doorman building; but when they published photographs of the scene of her death in the newspapers, the blinds to her office window were crooked and broken but drawn closed. In a city that seems to demand, even architecturally, to know who you are and what you do, we were thankful for that final, fleeting, moment of privacy.
Deirdre Faughey is a doctoral candidate studying Curriculum and Instruction at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is also an English teacher and the managing editor of www.internationalednews.com. She lives with her husband and two children in Sea Cliff, NY.
Highmore, B. (2005). City attractions-Commodities, shopping, and consumer choreography
(Chapter three in Cityscapes: Cultural readings in the material and symbolic city.
New York: Palgrave Macmillan).