“If stars are lit...”
- V. V. Mayakovsky
Had the receptionist been Dante Alighieri, he might have strung a banner along the wall of the windowless waiting room advising visitors to “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” But the person who pointed me in the direction of this circle of Hell was no Dante--nor was Virgil anywhere to be seen to offer his divine guidance. This morning, when I paid a visit to a large city agency in Downtown Brooklyn--let’s call it the New York City Department of Discomfiture--it was the surly Claire who indicated with a brusque nod of her head where I should sit. And while my visit was regarding my daughter, I am glad that I did not bring her here with me.
Banner or no banner, the waiting room spoke for itself. The overhead fluorescent lights flickered dimly and the gray linoleum floor was stained with a purgatory of brown splotchy circles. I sat on the split fabric of a sagging chair and looked up at a large water stains on the suspended ceiling. They corresponded perfectly with the browning of the floor. Nearly every inch of wall was obscured by suspect piles of boxes, erupting from the floor, bursting with file folders and personal records of clients long past. (“I did not think Death had undone so many,” would but Dante have been there to tell. Where wall was visible, peeling or bubbling paint held dominion.
The sunless creatures of this world--their pallor as taupe as the remaining paint on the walls--shambled in and out of their low cubicles to the printer to retrieve still more files, ceaselessly spewing from the Sisyphean fount.
In one corner stood an ancient microwave topped with chipped mugs and a brown-stained coffee maker. And everywhere, the aroma of coffee left too long on the burner. No one spoke to one another and I was alone in the waiting area, save for Claire--her once-brunette bun listing hopelessly to the left--seated at an open desk, pecking hesitantly at the keys of an IBM Selectric typewriter, addressing an envelope. As one denied Grace, she grumbled to herself as she rolled the envelope up on the ancient carriage and applied White Out to erase an error. One suspected that this was a frequent task for Claire, and her irritated laments, a deep-seated habit.
I felt my own breath sour as I waited. My own skin take on the walls’--and Claire’s--sickly hue. My mind began to keep count of each hesitant tap Claire made on her keyboard. And though I had done nothing wrong and was in that room for no punishment, I searched for excuses that might exonerate me from any kind of guilt or blame once--if--my appointment started.
Then I saw it, peeking from behind a stack of boxed files: a splash of dark blue and a swirl of white and gold, like a friendly beacon in the distance. The colors were not in character with the room. They possessed depth and richness--two words I would not associate with the New York City Department of Discomfiture.
Closer inspection revealed the representation of a night sky filled with swirling clouds, stars ablaze, and a bright crescent moon. Below the rolling hills of the horizon was a small, sleeping town. Despite a massive dark structure that suggested profound isolation, there was a peacefulness to the scene before me, somewhat allaying my anxiety. It was a reproduction of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night! A poster commemorating an earlier exhibition of the Dutch master’s oeuvre at the Museum of Modern Art. Just think of it, the painting that has become the very embodiment of Western Art, hidden from view in this artless room, this anti-gallery of diminishing hope.
But at some point, someone at the Department of Discomfiture had made the decision to hang The Starry Night, painted while the artist himself was in an asylum, there on that wall. Someone here had once deemed it necessary to offer some respite for the eyes of any sad souls left to languish there interminably, to offer solace to a waiting parent. Had it been Claire’s decision? Perhaps an order from the Commissioner of Discomfiture himself?
Then again, a counter-decision must have been made at a later date to cover it up, to extinguish The Starry Night. Could the Commish have ordered the cover up, compelling Claire, who, arguably, would have benefited most from the inspirational poster--to remove it, obscuring the starlight with baleful stacks of cardboard file boxes? Perhaps the poster inspired too much hope--the exact opposite of taupe--causing parents to anticipate a better outcome for themselves in their dealings with the city bureaucracy. It simply had to be kept from view. Still, it is interesting to note that the poster was allowed to stay up on the wall at all.
But I cannot remove the file boxes from that part of the room, cannot bring The Starry Night to light, so to speak, that it may ease the discomfort of myself or another. I don’t have access to the commissioner of this dread bureau of disappointments to convince him to again put the poster on display, try to appeal to his humanity, however much remained in his heart.
All I can do is grab Claire by her shoulders and shake her from her stupor - convince her that if those stars are lit, it means there is someone who needs them to be lit. It means that someone deems those lights above the asylum necessary, and that every evening at least one star needs to ascend over the crest of the New York City Department of Discomfiture.
Kevin Kinsella is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. He is a regular contributor to Bomb Magazine's Bomblog.