Sunday, June 8, 2008

New York is Loud, New York is Silent. (4/15/08)

In other news, a movie I recently got through netflix that surprised me into liking it very much was Michael Clayton. If you have the chance check it out.

I wanted to write this today because i had another new york is open, new york is closed moment while at the New York Public Library that made me realize how connected it is to another idea of New York being both loud and quiet, sometimes at the same time. I'm at NYPL, the big daddy, the main branch of the Humanities and Social Sciences research library, with the lions--you know the one, they filmed Ghostbusters there. And after checking my backpack and swapping out my pen for pencils and promising not to put anything on my lap or fold anything or in general treat all documents like Cameron from Ferris Bueller's Day off talks about his dad and the ferrari or whatever it is, the gatekeepers let me into the Berg Collection.

Why am I filling out eighty thousand forms and making promises my personality wants onlty to set fire to so i can get into the Berg Collection? Because, in a word, I'm getting paid to do it. I'm getting paid to collect the letters of Robert Frost, and Berg has five of them. So anyway, I'm in there, and the very nice doddering old guy in tie and blazer has correctly taken five seconds to look at a card catalog, the real live old fashioned one, then at my credentials and letter of permission from the friggin Frost estate, before he delegates, get this, the copying of FIVE, count em, five, goddamned letters. Motherfucker has some old lady, older than him, dig out five letters and make copies of them so he can sit at a big old desk twiddle his tie and stare at the opposite wall. He does buzz in the one visitor per hour so I shouldn't get on him too bad.

While I'm waiting I look in the direction he's looking, which is the wall opposite the door I came in (in truth this is just one modestly sized room, but you'd think it was a friggin vault). There on that wall in enormous letters are something like The So and So Dr. T. Toobershaum Berg Collection of American and English Literature, a gift of this guy Berg birth and death dates in memory of his brother Dr. Florsheim Excusemeyou'redoingitwrong Berg birth and death dates. Then, on either side of the scrawl, spotlit and everything, like it was the vietnam war veterans' wall, are two portraits, presumably of the two good doctors themselves. I notice in the dates that they both lived long lives, one to 80 and the other to nearly 80 at 79, long enough to cultivate both this collection and the money to buy it so they could turn around and donate it for the silent austerity of sealed access we call posterity, where old men and women will be delegated menial tasks and generally be useless and doddering in everything except in their ability to remain fussy and self-important, to give off that awful air that intimidates you if you believe in the precious worth of all this crap, these collected ocuments of dead people. whose payment each week comes from the ability to slow you down, to make you do things at their pace and fill out endless forms and sign in cards and generally feel watched and tracked.

The two portraits are big. They stare at you. One is of this nervous paranoid looking dude with, of course, a huge what looks like Audobon book of birds he's pensively about to turn the page of in his lap. Notably he's looking at us, not the book. Same deal with the other dude, who I surmise by the rodential look of his tight lips and little moustache must have been the amassing doctor, with the spectacled nervous fella his brother of dedication, as THIS doctor has no glasses and is looking through, not at, you, this time with less pretense of literacy and a tiny what looks like pulp novel barely creased on his knee.

Good stuff. But when I turn around it gets even better. The doors are always locked--you need to buzz your way in while showinga yellow golden ticket card of access--but they're glass, which is a beautiful illusion of accessibility and egalitarian values if you ask me. The point is, there are about twenty green shirted kids--maybe third or fourth graders--on tour, i think, with their teacher (tehre's only one adult in the crown and the kids are all in uniform, so you get the idea). Anyway they look like they want to beat on the glass, and then their eyes get all big, and their mouths hang open. I expect them to be bored when they can't actually get in to the room but they stay, just ogling, impressed by the promise of spectacle before them behind the glass doors. The suit and tie at the desk facing away from them turns to give them a glare, something his soft old face I didn't think was capable of, and turns back when he realizes they're not looking at him at all, they're staring all around--at the portraits, at the locked cages of dusty dilapidated crumbling books treated like jewels.

And I don't have anything to do because I'm waiting for the lady in the cardigan sweater who's been delegated to and who seems to have just left her walker to lean against the copy machine to finish xeroxing these five letters. It takes about fifteen minutes (and I later find out while standing there reviewing each letter with our suited friend at the desk, the soft face pinching when I tell him after having already making things difficult by turnign the tables and slowing HIM down, that in fact his delegated underling has screwed up, made a mistake somehow and not managed to copy five letters correctly, but actually missed one in the process), but before that, in the fifteen minute interim, or the part of it at least that includes this children staring, I'm totally enraptured by them.

The little mouths roundly O, the wide eyes, the almost touching the glass palms wanting to lean in closer if the glass would let them. And in that silent room with like three other people, with even the copy machine off to the side in another room, barely in view and certainly out of earshot, so that even machine sounds were absent, such a rarity these days, the silence became deafening under the low spotlights mean to make the grain of the oak everywhere even darker, more formidable, the old fashioned locked gates and their glass of much, much thicker stuff, the impregnable stuff we call old, we call tradition, we call famous geniuses you'll never understand being hoarded by people much richer than you and then displayed under their name, at their beck and call by the stewards who live off their legacy. And i thought about gorillas, or other high enough primates--orangutans, maybe, definitely chimpanzees--and i thought about zoos, and i really could feel them behind the bars. And I tell you, people, looking on this kids totally locked out and wide eyed and one hundred percent specimen themselves, silent despite all their motions of loudness behind the glass and the clear indication they were making noise outside this humidity and temperature controlled environment inside, this inside so loud with the without of sound it made your knuckles clench and the hammer and anvil in your ears rattle, it really did make you wonder who was on display.

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