From New York to New Orleans

by

07/21/2019

Neighborhood: Manhattan, New Orleans

Wandering Two Cities, a Youthful Diary

 

Edward Hopper once said that he identified all the places he’d known according to their architecture.  I used to be the same way.  I noticed people as backdrops to overblown dramas in light and shade.  I looked past them toward ogee roof and filigreed transom; I marveled at the heady volumes of imagination-translated cubes and cones; I stopped in awe as a streetscape spread out from a plaza and faded off into the distance, in a smoky haze.

A stowaway from the horizontally-captivated South, I wandered Manhattan’s grid. It was 1972. I felt the power-laden atmosphere from the ground up – though, walking along Third Avenue, I would get homesick for the prairie-like expanses of my suburban milieu and feel my tears welling up alongside of a cab stand or manhole cover. The density of the place was, by turns, oppressive and exhilarating.  If it soared vertically in the third dimension, it didn’t stay that way inside of the claustrophobic fibers of the soul.

The South I knew clustered at the bank of a river, but rivers are not reliable things.  They bully, they cut, they meander.  They’re tantrum-oriented too. Every old-timer has a flood story.  Even if you never have to run up to the attic as the water rises, your imagination is haunted by that possibility. But the South can offer protection as well. You can still hide out in the woods. The act of fleeing somebody down a canyon of brick and stone seems riskier – as it always is in film noir. You find an alley – or go straight to the top. Your options? Death by claustrophobia or a miscalculated jump.

To return to Hopper: he and a friend were downtown and happened to notice a cluster of skyscrapers framed by shipping-age remnants that were likely to be toppled at any moment. When his friend started to rhapsodize about the skyscrapers, Hopper shrugged his shoulders and said he preferred the dinkier buildings that clustered at its base – the human scale exemplified by row-house and tenement.  Having worked my way down Manhattan from the great, early 20th-century towers to the tin cornices and tarpaper roofs of the Ashcan era, I understand what he meant. I watched whole blocks of tenements come down all over Midtown – great parcels of two-story buildings that had served generations of store-keepers and restaurateurs.  I walked the old Tenderloin, where the demi-monde of the Weber and Fields era posed unwittingly for William Glackens and John Sloan.  I stood outside of the tacky, new Penn Station and tried to imagine the old one there – an American version of a Roman bathhouse disgorging and receiving miniature humans.  George Bellows had painted it as a yawning gorge; innumerable observers after him tried to make sense of its heroic scale and heart-breaking presence.  Photo-diaries of its destruction became my personal library. I’d go to my small room at the Y and pore over these photographs, trying to conceive of a civic intelligence that would condemn and replace it. I was not accustomed to considering the utility of an object.  If it served a higher (read: aesthetic) function, that was enough; this quality justified its continuing existence. These days, I think the opposite; any building that sits on property that is potentially more valuable has, for better or worse, a shelf-life, a sell-by date. The economic system that creates it will ultimately determine how long it manages to stick around. Brendan Gill said that his efforts as a preservationist went unnoticed because whatever is saved is “still there.” It must be a thankless job, to save something that shouldn’t, in a better world, need saving. You hit the home run nobody ever sees.

In my search for the usable past, I went as far up as the GW Bridge and sat underneath it on jutting rocks spattered with the silver paint that made it look like steel from a distance.  I toured Gramercy Park – that almost-gated community sandwiched between Lexington Avenue and Irving Place. Here two warring centuries had laid down their arms and walked together, admiring what man could do with chunks of brownstone, marble and wrought iron. There was the fine old hotel where S. J. Perelman stayed when he wasn’t in Rangoon; obsolete clubhouses frequented by hyphenated men of the theatre; and art-filled mansions Hollywood might care to use for The House of Mirth. On the east side of the park were a few New Orleans-style townhouses that had been grafted – strange party animals at a black-tie dinner – onto a more stately progression of aldermanic “property.”  I was struck by their out-of-place frivolity, their light-hearted tampering with a well-established form.  This was something New Orleans (as I would later find) was good at.  New York, even at its genteel best, was too starchy, and too, by New Orleans’ standards, puritanical.

I took the A-train up to The Cloisters, conscious of making a pilgrimage that wouldn’t ultimately thrill me. I felt the way a potential donor must: obliged.  Paying homage is a spontaneous sort of thing and shouldn’t be hitched to the notion of having to.  I never have, and probably never will, like such places. They are essentially mausoleums, tended by architectural guardians who let respectful observers in and out, but are otherwise intolerant of human dereliction, human noise. The Met I did like. There you felt small, but you mattered; its grandeur rubbed off on you, made you larger somehow. You walked underneath its vaulted spaces and developed a religious connection to the art of the past. You came to appreciate its far-sighted protectors, who had built such a monument to house it all. You went there all the time, if only to be part of the best civilization had to offer.  And if you didn’t want to pay anything, you bloody well didn’t.  You got your little color-coded pin and were set for the whole day if that’s how long you wanted to stick around.

There was a German neighborhood east of the museum, from Lexington down to York Avenue. There you could buy exquisite little pastries served – if you were lucky – by perfect little Aryan goddesses.  It was inside of a spun-sugar storefront on East 81st that I fell victim to a coup de foudre of gigantic, pre-adult proportions. There she was, in a poufy blouse tied at the waist, exuding her carefully made, almond-scented world: a world of caramel-colored woodwork and confectionary frills. When she straightened up, she assumed a ramrod posture that seemed totally natural. It was the way she presented herself to customers.  How captivating! I thought, as she went toward another customer with a gauzy little serving-tray. I couldn’t say anything except to order “that.”  “That” was all I could say to her. “This?” she asked me in a supple voice.  “Yes, this,” I said, thrilled to be repeating a word she’d said.  “This is it, then,” she told me, reaching for the thing I wanted. I left with a stolen glimpse of her turning around toward a sideboard from whose coffee-urn she drew a steaming cup. Then she flipped a switch and looked out toward me. There she was, surrounded by a velvety darkness borrowed from a fin de siècle photograph. I was thrilled in a way I cannot, even now, understand. Yet I do know this: I had become so comfortable with the inanimate that any human attraction could disorient me.  Or maybe I was merely dumbstruck, as many young men have been before, at the sight of a woman who would be forever out of reach. Those comfortable with the inanimate come to know this feeling intimately.

I took whatever it was I ordered – “that” – back to my room at the Y.  I never ate it.  When it had dried out, I folded it into the fluted napkin she’d served it on and left it out in the kitchen.

Some years later–I believe it was 1976–when I was in New Orleans, and an artist wannabe, I was still looking out at cornices and rooflines, though I’d acquired a tad more comfort with human attractions. Walking miles and miles from my home-base in the Quarter, I was able to restrain the impulse to keep walking in order to stand almost perfectly still near a Creole-era mansion or iron-trimmed oyster-bar and work on my chops with charcoal and conte crayon. The drawings I would do piled up on the floor of a two-room apartment that provided me and my friend, Tom, with only the most perfunctory protection from the outside world. We traded off sleeping-places, so that neither of us would roast in the still and humid air. The little couch near our screen door was almost tolerable, in that it afforded some small access to circulating air – to air that moved. Whoever slept “in back” dragged through his restaurant job with more grit than consciousness and was glad to switch place the next night. When you’re fairly young, you don’t quantify rest the way middle-aged people do. We’re not “right” unless we get a full eight hours; some of us can even make do with seven. But in the small street-level apartment’s totally humidified cosmos, sleep deprivation was so constant that one of us always seemed to be crashed out on the sofa at odd hours, catching up.  Whoever tiptoed in through the screen door did it very carefully.

It’s odd to think that we had only that screen door between us and the rampant criminality we mostly ignored. Once, when I had the sofa, I looked up to see the image of a curious observer occupying the breadth of the screen. As I began to sit up, he grew larger for a moment as he moved in for a closer look at his subject, then fled. I mentioned it the next day; ever the humorist, my friend Tom said he’d take care to latch the door.  “You can never be too careful,” he observed.  In our case, ignorance protected – though it wouldn’t always.


The routines I’d broken in while in New York City were brought to slovenly perfection in New Orleans. Unlike Manhattan, which is cooled, if not always freshened, by its rivers, New Orleans has an airflow problem. The city was barraged, in equal measure, with sunlight and sulphur; with otherworldly fragrance and ungodly stink.  A rancid odor seemed to be present in all man-made things; it had seeped into every vestibule, which exhaled it out; it had found a trusting environment in the wide banquettes that helped make the French Quarter a walking city and suspired from it every hour of every day; it was welcome in bar-rags and table-linen which breathed it out when you sat down on in front of a Budweiser or among other alfresco diners. I thought it possible to draw these things and wanted desperately for my work to not only reflect the visible, but have a kind of second or third gear: a sensual quality, a capacity for evoking smell as well as sight; for snagging senses as yet unknown. With this particular quest of mine, Tom was both sympathetic and encouraging. Yet we could be brought up short by fiercer yearnings, sensual challenges to the monkish disciplines we had imposed upon ourselves and had, for the most part, accepted. We were walking down Dumaine Street one day when I noticed a young girl in front of a building whose textural nuances she easily trumped. “The life force has triumphed! The flesh has won!” Tom exclaimed audibly enough for her and perhaps every other unaccompanied female in the Quarter to hear. We both watched the girl recede into the distance. I soon went back to my textural nuances; he to his musicology and theatre studies.

I should recall something Tom and I experienced at different times. He and I were drawn to the same sort of melancholy places New Orleans – celebrated for its Good Times – doesn’t want to acknowledge.  Both on my own, and in his company, we went in search for the wonderfully decrepit and strangely overwrought. We searched out good, gentle people who could tell you stories of a rule-bound, family-oriented past – but we liked to break ‘em up with earthier folk who liked smashing things over peoples’ heads.  Being young and fairly directionless – unless you want to think of our hunger as an organizing principle – our mostly solitary travels were unplanned. I had a penchant for the industrial and followed it past the Quarter into the Uptown area, where on Camp, Magazine, and Poydras Streets I studied the architectural face of a brutally vigorous expansion of known and beloved territory. I studied the fine old granite piers that had supported pre-Civil War commerce; I gaped at the fabulously oversized cobblestones that must’ve been hell on horses; I drank in the color-shifts of iron-infused and magnesium-tinted brick.  I watched crabbed working-stiffs return at dusk from factory-jobs that our service economy has no doubt gutted; I stood off to the side as a black guy and a white guy traded insults verbally, then started to knock the shit out of each other with their fists; I whistled in wonder at the silhouette of a hundred nineteenth-century facades that tumbled away from me as I walked. At Lee Circle, I turned and walked toward the river, where Terpsichore Street yielded Italianate splendor; Poydras made my heart sink with its solitary live oaks; on Tchopitoulous I stood behind a row of down-at-heel shops and concentrated on the slave quarters in back. These were the barracks of a city whose grace and sophistication needed backup – or, rather, backbone. I was getting my chops out there. I thought a drawing could do as much as a good story could if you could just get the subject down in all of its vast interconnections: of human history, of natural growth and decay; of everything that did happen, could happen, and might happen to it. A tall order, but I thought, at times, that I might eventually be up to it. I popped into the galleries on Royal Street, unimpressed by their pictorially conservative, but uniformly costly, wares. There was a print gallery that had everybody. I pored over Martin Lewis and Stow Wegenroth in little plastic sleeves, much to the  annoyance of the proprietor.

I worked through fatigue, sexual frustration, and the momentary despair that finds you even when you’re feeling better than you’ve ever felt.  Yet it gets in as a splinter will. You know what it is, however, and if you can stand the pain, you can yank it right out.  I was training myself to be an anachronism – at least in the art world of that day.

But back to our story:

On one of those sultry days, when I was lurking around Magazine Street, I poked into a nondescript sort of building that had been connected to the restaurant trade.  There was some evidence of it still: steel sinks that looked almost brand-new; floor-bound refrigerators whose tops slid open; shallow tubs that fit into a steam-table. I’d always been susceptible to open doors and could hardly ever resist any opportunity to go in them – no matter what possible danger might lurk beyond.  I entered through the front – a risky thing to do in those days.  If somebody sees you go in, they can go in right after you.  And if their intentions are violent, they’ve got you cornered. I thought about all this only in the abstract. The need to be in there was paramount.

Careening my way around the refrigerators, I found a series of smaller rooms, into which moody, courtroom-style shafts of yellow sunlight penetrated. These rooms were littered with old invoices and perky calendars. Order blanks spilled from file cabinets that would have looked new in Omaha, but had become New Orleans-rancid. After searching other, similar rooms, I settled on the first and started drawing. When you draw something you’re like a doughy creature that ordinarily lives in the protective spiral of a sea-shell, coming out of that shell and entering into a world that can crush or eat you. Time disappears; you occupy a nano-space without fixed boundaries.  It’s powered by a willing imagination and limited by hunger-pangs, the sudden craving for a human presence, and a bodily perception of something wrong in the air – which may or may not include a dangerous person.

I was lucky; I had a wall behind me; you need a wall behind you when you’re drawing – something you can back into that won’t yield.

When I was done, I made my way across the room and down a musty corridor.  Blocking this corridor was a man whose face I don’t remember and is not important. He was standing there, in my right of way, putting on a pair of plastic gloves. One glove was already on by the time I saw him and was moving in his direction. The other he was stretching out, as if to flex a stiffened muscle. He was not surprised to see me; he’d possibly watched me come in and had been waiting. As I approached, he kept his little ritual going. If I’d hesitated, he might’ve closed in on me, but whatever gut instinct had survived my etherealized immersion in that small room told me to go forward, past him and to the door, where I could easily break into a run if I had to. Oddly enough, he let me sidle by him, as if I were someone who wasn’t needed at the moment – someone who was just passing through and should have his space. When I got out the door, I broke into a run that was a hundred percent raw nerves. I ran in order to put distance between us; I ran because I’d come out of a dark place into the light and wanted to fill my lungs with it; I ran because I could.

I would leave the city that autumn, promising guiltily to return. I’d never paid a dime for that porous little place where we lived, and felt I ought to.  It was old and needed a paint-job very badly.

I never have returned – though I was scheduled to fly there a few days before Katrina when the floodwaters spilled over Lake Pontchartrain and breached those two, Category Three-proof levees. I’ve been thinking again of New Orleans; of its architecture soaking in water and of its people living there today. After Katrina, people drifted back to water-logged kitchens and living-rooms, and the ragged contours of the place reappeared. Yet the putrid social order that allowed the well-heeled to skedaddle while leaving everybody else high, if not dry, is still in place. The city has staggered back to life even as it courts its own destruction. The cycle of flood and recovery continues.  I learned in New Orleans that architecture never matters as much – in spite of my earlier thesis – as the people it contains. Without them, there is no context. There is a way out, but no way in.

I need to go back there and work again, now that I am a grown person and can pace myself. I need to go back and see whether hallucination can be a tactile thing. I need to go back and find the place where I first began my own, highly subjective and certainly unreasonable search for the unseen; for the music that absolutely has to be at the bottom of every living (and even long-dead) thing.

I’m betting that the old imperfect city is again nurturing romantics bent on experiencing its charm and beauty; its great sleeping shipload of things seen and unseen; its brass-bound and butt-ugly natchuh in which violence and creativity are present in equal measure.

***

Above paintings by Brett Busang

“The Empire State Building from McCarren Park”
Acrylic on Masonite, 20 x 24, c  1994 Brett Busang
“Duke Ellington Boulevard, at Manhattan Avenue”
24 x 36, c  1990 Brett Busang


Having exhausted himself by means of interstate adventures that raged until the turn of the century,
Brett Busang occupies a small house in sleepy Brunswick, Maryland, with three cats that stay inside and several others that don’t.  His flower-garden is poorly tended while the gorge that protects the wildlife many of his fellow residents would like to shoot protects him as well.

In addition to essays and art criticism, he has published fiction https://www.amazon.com/I-Shot-Bruce-Brett-Busang/dp/0692601236 and seen some of his plays performed in venues that sound as fictional as the plays themselves.  He is also a painter. www.brettbusang.com

 

           

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§ 2 Responses to “From New York to New Orleans”

  • John Bottger says:

    His words have the same magic to me as his paintings! Bravo, Brett

  • tsb says:

    “We went in search for the wonderfully decrepit and strangely overwrought.” vague. Like what, where, exactly?

    “I was training myself to be an anachronism.” Wonderful.

    “Then she flipped a switch and looked out toward me. There she was, surrounded by a velvety darkness borrowed from a fin de siècle photograph.” v nice.

    Hopper’s spirit is v present in New Orleans. Mostly gone in Manhattan.

§ Leave a Reply

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