Monday, November 23, 2009

“I place my mark and do not hide.” Isamu Noguchi


An unseasonably warm Saturday this weekend brought The Mister and me to Queens, specifically Long Island City. Young, newly married friends of ours had invited us to their apartment on Crescent Street to meet the new addition to their family. Rennie and David had rescued Buddy, a two-year-old bichon poodle mix, from a shelter. Recently they dropped by our apartment to meet the two kittens named Billie and George who captured our hearts when The Mister and I decided, after our old cat Sidney left us, that a house was not a home without cats and it was time for a visit to the ASPCA.

I grew up in Astoria and knew well the surrounding areas of Long Island City. When we exited the subway at Queensboro Plaza and crossed above the busy roadway feeding onto the 59th Street Bridge I recalled immediately the times I would accompany my Aunt Frances to the unemployment office in the building linked by the little bridge to the subway station. When the Golden Age of Vacuum Tubes faded women with small hands like my diminutive aunt were needed to assemble transistor radios. In the late 50s some new invention rendered her nimble fingers unnecessary. I was a little girl and she an out of work employee off the production line of the Fisher Radio Corporation. Now The Mister passes through this area when he rides in to work with a co-worker. What he sees are the prison busses releasing men into post dawn freedom and the women who, for a fee, will remind a lot of them what they didn’t have behind bars.

But on a sunny late Saturday morning the entrance to the station was crowded only with grumbling passengers disembarking from shuttle busses because subway service was once again disrupted in Queens. Rather than fight our way onto the waiting shuttle bus with a disgruntled mob we opted to walk the distance of the two short stops along Crescent Street to our friends’ apartment. Turning on to Crescent Street I was startled to see a Ramada Inn. On a block further down was another utilitarian looking structure with the ironic sign: Country Inn.

The blocks closest to the Great Iron Wall of the elevated subway were the lackluster streets I remembered as a child, though some evidence of the little shingled houses remain among the barbed wire and acres of rotting automobiles. Now there are satellite dishes breaking the low skyline above flat roofs. An American flag hung from an aluminum awning above a window in a shingled house as faded as the stars and stripes. In the background, a quartet of smoke stacks, looming evidence of the city’s power source. A vacant lot once held a rather down at heel flea market. Rosenwach is a grim, fenced fortress behind which are housed those ubiquitous water tanks. The neighborhood is where taxis go after their shifts are up; where the silver quilted carts of fast food vendors set out of a morning stocked with dirty water dogs, bloated tasteless pretzels and the strange gray matter called gyros. A view of the stagey Manhattan skyline in the distance is highlighted in the foreground with footlights of razor wire.

Gas stations and swathes of forbidding chain link fence soon give way to more habitable signs of life like laundromats, a storefront music studio, and a deli. Two-story brick homes that I recall growing up are still there. Not so is the jealousy I felt for school friends who lived in those homes. Coming from a housing project, I hopelessly compared their lives, which were a luxury of porches and back yards and a room of their own, to mine. These houses are probably multiple dwellings now.

Queens is a buzz of nationalities and has always been though the tides of ethnicity shift over the years as immigrants improve their lot in life and move on. A Punjab car dealership, shiny Greek diners and some of the mock-Tudor-style that reminds The Mister of England. An angry looking bald eagle painted on a shuttered storefront suggests the conservatism underneath. Relatively new are the young people who come to New York and have been priced out of their Manhattan dream. Modern apartment buildings—terraced condos—have risen and are still rising along the East River.

Our planned destination was the Noguchi Museum a couple of miles away. Good weather days demand that we walk, so after leaving a very disappointed Buddy behind, we carried on with our friends in the direction of the museum. We detoured into Socrates Sculpture Park, which I am embarrassed to admit I have not been to. Maybe because I always remembered that area as a toxic dumping ground, an abandoned landfill that street-wise girls like I was stayed far away from. But since the late 80s, the area was conceived by the sculptor Mark di Suvero and developed into an open studio and exhibition space for artists. It has also turned out to be a pretty neat park with fine views of Manhattan and the promise of river breezes in the summer. The winter lawn, uneven and patchy, seemed at the moment to be the domain of the free wheeling dogs off leash. We meandered around a rag tag collection of outdoor sculpture, some of which looked pretty weather beaten. My favorite was the giant rat atop a very tall pedestal, which was dripping with what looked like bird shit. On its back a sculpted pigeon gave credence to the title of the piece: Massive Dump. Runner up was the subway station entrance to nowhere.

When one arrives at the Noguchi Museum it seems a very uninspired place from the exterior, an unadorned brick box of a building. I have been here a few times before but not since the extensive renovations. I confess to appreciating more the rawness of a place like an artist’s studio left as is or say Ellis Island when it was almost a dangerous place to tramp around but where you were more likely to feel the ghosts of the place.

But the museum was a good place to culturally re-fuel, especially after a theatrical production of Albert Camus: The Misunderstanding, which we saw on Thursday night at The Flea Theater in Tribeca. A relentlessly grim adherence to dialog left the rather underwhelming actors with no where to go but screaming. The final onstage scream had The Mister and me racing for the exit stairs, he mumbling something about The Wooden Tops school of acting.

A place like the Noguchi Museum is a refuge. One can leave the convolutions of politics behind: a 2,000-plus page health care bill which can’t be good, the question of whether the radiation from Three Mile Island is significant or not and the specter of Sarah Palin not exactly paling these days. Her book of lies notwithstanding, it’s as one witty blogger writes: “Just like the bible thumpers; speak loudly and carry a small sack o facts.” And that too hastily restarted Big Bang machine that has scientists in a dither? It’s time for a refuge.

We wandered the nearly empty galleries and the original space that was the sculptor’s working studio pausing before whatever piece commanded our attention. The Zen-like presence of the sculptures shared their calm with us. Each piece had, I don’t know, a quality of knowing. As a viewer one could only remain outside the influence of any of the larger abstracts for so long before being brought spiritually closer to the quiet strength of those works. One can imagine the stone breathing, having a pulse and a heartbeat.

Isamu Noguchi’s long time assistant and collaborator Shoji Sadao revealed in a video that if Noguchi felt he cut too much from the stone he would leave it for a year or whatever time it took and the stone would heal like a person.

I have been writing short stories and lately returned to the journals from years ago that I used to keep religiously. It has been many, many years since I have read these pages because I did not, as a rule, reread any of the journal entries. I kept the journals on the top shelf of the bookcase, unreachable, and all those memories tightly sealed between the covers of each journal. Now I am reading my journal from the winter of 1975. It was a raw time for me. I was deeply wounded by a marriage that I never should have been part of. Pages and pages of howling at the moon fill those years. But a remarkable thing has been happening as I conjure up inspiration for my fictional short stories and excavate what I had been avoiding for so long. Wounds have healed. A sad and tortured childhood holds pockets of comic splendor and reminders of a kind of faith I had as a child that I would find my way. The deep cuts that I received (and, in all honesty, gave out) are no longer raw. The journals have taken their time but the cuts have been closed. I am left now to carve new stories from the stone.

We left the museum and enjoyed a brunch in Astoria with our young friends. I was no longer a little girl who didn’t understand why her family wasn’t like the Ozzie and Harriet bunch, nor was I that young woman married and miserable in another’s family that never made her feel welcome. I was with The Mister and a young couple whose ideals I respect and whose future will see them flourish.

I was a grown woman and I was with friends.

PHOTOGRAPH ABOVE: THE MOUNTAIN 1964 Red Persian Travertine 20 x 11 x 24 inches


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