The Plight of the Organized

by

02/17/2002

116th st and broadway, ny, ny 10027

Neighborhood: All Over, Manhattan

Passing by St. Mark’s Bookstore, I hesitate and peer in, sizing up the window displays. I’m anxious about a fifteen minute gap in my color-coded schedule. Brown for my day-job, red for visual art, aquamarine for friends & family are the colors I assigned to the categories in my laptop’s organizer program. A few moments in a bookstore can absolve guilt and obscure loneliness. I go in and wander purposelessly. On my way out I linger in the vestibule a moment and scan the fliers. Poetry readings, plays, protests, Mumia, Mailer, Miller.

I fix on one. Koolhaas. Speaking next Monday at Columbia University. Am I doing anything Monday? No.

Koolhaas, a Dutch architect and former screenplay-writer, is author of Delirious New York (1978), a soi-disant retroactive manifesto for Manhattanism. Manhattanism, he determined, was an unconscious almost Freudian urbanist agenda which produced Coney Island, the Flatiron Building, Radio City Music Hall, the Chrysler Building and which, in his opinion, foundered on the “rational” cubes of the cohorts of Le Corbusier. Koolhaas leapt from a position of notoriety in the architectural discourse to one of marginal notoriety in the broad cultural discourse with the publication in 1995 of SMLXL, best described as a 1400 page book of graphic-designed architectural non-fiction. I may be the only person to have read Delirious New York in two months and SMLXL cover-to-cover in two weeks. This marks me as one who takes Koolhaas way too seriously.

The trip up to Columbia is uneventful. Despite my unfamiliarity with the neighborhood in which the university squats, I have a comfort zone on the trains that head up the Upper West Side of Manhattan as I spent eighteen months personal-assisting a folk-musician-turned-jingle-composer living on West End Avenue. When I exit the subway station at 116th Street & Broadway I’m in my blinkered gotta-get-where-I’m-going mode, making straight for the Main Gate—I’m sure its nomenclature is decidedly more Anglo-Saxon but its actual name is one piece of research I’m unwilling to undertake. It is an entrance I have walked through once before, having stood in line for ninety sweltering minutes in June 1997 to attend the event ceremonizing my brother’s graduation from Columbia Medical School. Or rather, the College of Physicians & Surgeons—that name I do not need to look up, for my parents recite it given any suitable opportunity.

Just inside the gate is a helpful color-coded map. The colors do not correspond to any institutional pattern, nor do they denote function—unlike my computer date book. The colors on the map are purely for show, like a peacock. They announce its desirable map-ness, encouraging visitors to interrogate it, rather than the nearby security officers, for orientation; the officers’ job, after all, is to secure the campus from intruders and not to guide them toward their destination. I am going to Avery Hall which appears to be less than a minute away. But the negotiation of the pathways proves more complicated than the map prognosticated. I will have to climb steps to get there. I hate steps. I take elevators to mezzanines. I try circumventing the steps but find myself cornered, staring at a twenty-five foot high wall of granite. The McKim, Mead & White-designed Low Memorial Library and the great mass of steps that ascend thereto are not to be thwarted. (McKim et al. were a resilient bunch. Developers demolished their Pennsylvania Station in 1964 but by 2002 passengers will be disembarking in the new Pennsylvania Station created by architects from Skidmore Owens Merrill out of the General Post Office building designed by… McKim, Mead & White.) I submit to the ascent. I try skipping up the steps in an effort to psyche myself into a good mood, but after thirty of them I’m still pretty disgruntled. I lope the rest of the way to what transpires to be the Koolhaas-less Avery Hall. For, when I step up to the entrance, a littl! e note in the door indicates that it has been postponed. No explanation.

So what is to be done? I got here early to avoid disappointment. It is 6:02 p.m. I’m to meet Dave at the Brasserie at 8:00 p.m. Park Avenue and 53rd Street. And I’m at Broadway and 116th. I don’t know anyone in the neighborhood I can drop in on. I look around. Maybe I can find a coffee house off-campus where I might ensconce myself for a guilt-free two hours of reading and writing. Productivity is important. If I hadn’t gone into St. Mark’s to properly inhabit an empty quarter-hour I would never have heard about this lecture. Of course, there was no lecture. And now I have to find a way to fill eight quarter-hours. Still scanning my surroundings, I recognize a girl, I think I recognize a girl from… from somewhere. And her friend too. I can’t…quite…place them though. I walk over to a bench and sit down for a moment. Have a cigarette. Relax. While feeling for my soft-pack I think of my cellphone. Maybe there’s someone I should call. I scroll through my list of numbers. No-one useful comes to mind. I can clean up my entries, delete the numbers of a couple of girls who’ve blown me off. But that’s petty. And maybe they’ll call me back someday and I’ll feel silly to boot. Frank. Heather. Heidi. The girl I most want to be called back by is alphabetically located just before my ex-of-six-months-wife. A coffee-shop would be nice. I make for the gate, this time trying to enjoy the steps, their mild, expansive descent. The Lerner Center. I high-five myself inside. One of the most talked about architectural projects in the United States; not for its program, which was pretty banal—just another student center—but because Columbia University, having originally selected the pedestrian firm of Gruzen-Samton to design it, decided to add Bernard Tschumi. The decision derived from the fact of Tschumi’s international cachet—he designed one of Mitterand’s grands projets, the Parc de la Villette—but university politics was not innocent; he’s Dean of the Columbia School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. I proceed over, buoyant, trying to recover from my faulty memory some, any, factoids or critical nuggets about the Lerner’s design, as if I were a rebellious student tour guide with a phalanx of prospective parents, ones hoping to have borne a Columbia student. From the outside it does not appear to be up to much, though I can’t see the Broadway side. It is difficult to take in the facade because of the visual noise of the orange webbing protecting the grass in front from short-cutting students. I never knew how attention-sucking orange webbing can be. Not only is there enough of it to protect the perimeter of the grass, but the groundskeepers have added an X, extending to the four corners—tough on Ultimate Frisbee players. It seems to be an old building with a glass extension. I could swear it’s an entirely new structure. But when I reach the entrance I realize that the old is new—though fortunately I am half-right. The new is new. I grit my teeth. It’s like Boston. Paying! obeisance to “context” in the currency of red brick. Perhaps it’s better inside, I think, as I pass under a suspended column which looks like a brick turd.

Were I a Columbia student, or an accredited journalist, I would have had the chance to find out, but none of the magnetic stripes on the various pieces of plastic in my wallet are encoded with the data that will allow me to pass through the turnstiles. I linger for a moment, watching students with uncannily familiar countenances (or clothing?) circulate through the four-story atrium criss-crossed by ramps leading to who-knows-what student services. It looks the way I wished airports would, but don’t.

However I am not completely barred from the building. Purchasing food at the cafe conveniently located between the entrance and the turnstiles is permissible, sensibly from a revenue-generating standpoint. My money, at least, is as good at the students’. I will eat in Bernard Tschumi’s first major American building. I order and am told that I have to pay first and then bring the receipt over to them. Who makes these decisions? There is a term in management theory—“best practice”—it’s a generous way of saying “I’ve got it all figured out and this is the best way to do it.” But who decided that this is “best practice” for this type is establishment? Were studies commissioned? Consultants hired? Expert opinions canvassed? I buy a roast beef sandwich, then order a roast beef sandwich, and finally take it outside.

Columbia students are amongst the few groups in New York who can defy the contrariness of Spring weather. It’s probably about 65 at the moment, but it’s supposed to rain soon and get pretty cold. I dressed this morning in anticipation of this turn of weather but they’re two minutes from their dorm room and can pop inside, divest, re-vest. So they’re all in shorts, Tevas, sun dresses. I try to feel jealous but can’t quite manage.

I take my sandwich out of the bag and unfold the paper wrapping, laying it alongside my copy of the journals of Peter Handke, leant to me earlier that week by Watson, a co-worker at my day-job. One to two sentence impressions and episodes. I can allow myself an hour of fragmentariness. “My mind is often a little ahead of whatever action I am performing. This brief moment of cleavage between consciousness and activity sometimes impedes my feeling for the activity.” Notes to myself— Overheard conversation between student and teaching assistant about Gnosticism. What is their cosmology? How do they see Jesus?

The student, eager to please the TA, agrees with her questions, hoping to rewrite his paper in her mind. She wants him to be more specific. He agrees again. He bums a smoke off her. I must have that relationship wrong. I think of a young lady in whom I am somewhat interested and think I must tell her about something else related to the same topic. Is overhearing conversation a way of not having to think more when I am on my own?

Or is it just another way to connect with the world? Do I mistake connection for engagement? I walk to the subway, my mind revolving the possible routes to Park Avenue and 53rd Street. Spatial configurations form and dissolve. Sitting within a patterned haze, I register that the doors of the subway car have not closed. “Will the gentleman holding the door open in the first carriage please let me know when he is ready to resume his journey on this Number Nine downtown train to South Ferry.” The pleasure of an act of spontaneous humor in an anonymous environment, so much better when coming from a subway conductor or a cop than a bartender or a cabdriver—who are always trying so hard. I think I’ll go down to 59th St./Columbus circle, catch a C downtown and then catch an E going the opposite direction. When I reach 96th Street, the conductor announces that there is an express train on the opposite track. I jump off. A sudden moment of clarity all the more pleasurable when you still have the opportunity to act on the insight. I can go to 42nd Street and take the shuttle!

Three stops, I’m there. As I change trains at 42nd Street/Times Square I feel at ease for the first time in two hours. I feel at home here, inside. The shuttle from Times Square to Grand Central is the only conductor-less train in New York City. Walking up Vanderbilt Ave I register an ATM neon sign and realize I should get money. I feel a surge of anxiety walking into the deli, as if I have been here before. Why does deja-vu hurt so much? I feel light-headed. I think I’m blushing. It is shame I feel, shame, as if humanity’s Original Sin were not the eating of forbidden fruit but the failure to recognize God.

I am going to the Brasserie because Dave thought I should see Diller + Scofidio’s renovation of the less glamorous of the two Seagram Building basement eateries—the other being Philip Johnson’s The Four Seasons. The deeper background: Phyllis Lambert, the precocious daughter of the Seagram family patriarch Charles Bronfman, persuaded her father back in the 1950’s some time, to hire Mies van der Rohe to design Seagrams’ Park Avenue corporate headquarters. Since then she has become the grande dame of avant-garde architecture by funding numerous competitions, presiding over the Canadian Center for Architecture, and selecting Rem Koolhaas to design the new Universal Studios’ headquarters in L.A., the exchange of coasts the analogous result of an equally tectonic shift in the nature of the corporation, from alcohol to entertainment; Seagrams is now, in effect, Universal Studios/MCA. Though the family sold the 345 Park Avenue building, she retained a veto over alterations in the p! hysical fabric of the building; the outcome of this negotiation was the selection of the “dissident” architectural firm of Diller + Scofidio to re-design the restaurant. Not only had they never done a restaurant, they had never built much of anything. They produce books, performance art, art installations, websites—they’re even “building” an actual cloud in Switzerland— but little by way of built architecture. Like Koolhaas, much of their architecture is in the mind. “In my own mind, I am as much a writer as an architect,” Koolhaas might murmur. So I’m eager to see it, and eager to set foot in the Seagram Building itself, experience the building from within.

The problem is that at this point I don’t know the street address, and for all my reading of the architectural theory and gossip, I’m not 100% certain what this icon of the International Style actually looks like. I mean, I’ve a pretty good sense, but it’s surrounded by knock-offs, and will I be aesthetically savvy enough to distinguish it from its imitators as I walk up Park Avenue? I’ve always thought of it as being located on the west side of Park Avenue so this is the side I am walking north on. It’s shortly before eight p.m. and the kerbs are lined by limos idling as they await the departure of corporate vice-presidents from Banker’s Trust, Colgate Palmolive, Chase Manhattan. I start to ask people if they know where the Seagram Building is. Although asking directions makes me uncomfortable, once one asks the first person, one has the confidence to ask an entire street of people. This is how I think of it. The buildings’ inhabitants have no idea what I’m talking about and the limo drivers tell me that if I can tell them the street address they can tell me where it is. I could get angry and frustrated at the obviousness of such a question, especially when repeated by five drivers, but instead I think how remarkable it is that nobody knows the Seagram Building. Instead I think.

Anything to not have to feel anger. Finally a middle-aged woman tells me it is at 53rd Street on the east side. I feel stupid. I Though as I did (continuing north four minutes ago) I did admire the warmth of the office lights shining through the smoked glass and the way it was set back from the avenue. My life is maybe a little less hopeless than it seemed just now. For all my confusion I’m a little early so I decide to smoke a cigarette in the plaza. The night is still warm. An Asian executive smokes too, and an Airborne Express messenger waits. The plaza stretches one hundred fifty feet to the street. For a moment I’m cocooned. Alhough I still have a couple of minutes before the appointed time, I’m not sure how exactly to get into the Brasserie. There’s no sign. I manufacture a casual courage and walk into the main lobby and ask the security guard. You can take that staircase, he tells me. I comply, and head toward what appears to be some kind of back entrance. I push a door open and nearly hit a diner’s chair. My facade of belongingness momentarily disrupted, I know I must keep walking with purpose, and I sway my hips ever so slightly to restore my confidence. I’m in the right place, I tell myself, but I don’t feel at all right. I try to find a position on the periphery where I can orient myself without appearing lost. There is no periphery in here so I continue walking toward what I think is the main entrance, up a frosted glass staircase with low long steps, past the maitre d’, through the revolving door and out onto the street and then back inside again, knowing now that my approach into the establishment will be a conventional one. There, I can see Dave sitting at the bar. I join him.

Two hours later I prepare to leave after three drinks on an roast-beef-sandwich stomach. My sense of self is foggy, approximating a degree of focus that unselfconsciously mimicks the vodka bottles which appear to float in space behind a twelve foot high, sixty foot long frosted glass cabinet behind the bar. To leave a place requires that you arrive at another— but do you think of yourself as one who has left or one who has arrived? Do you think you left a void behind or do you think you filled a new void? Do you feel a void inside, or not? The relationship subsists between the outside void and the inside void. If you fill a void inside you, are you cured of your own emptiness?

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