Et in Arcadia Ego

Poetry is an art of imitation... that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth--to speak metaphorically,
a speaking picture...
--Sir Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesie

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Sunday
May182008

THE TERMINAL

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We are all born at the bottom of an hourglass, every day burying us alive, thought Cross as he stood near the currency exchange booth, watching the cross-currents of humanity flowing from one destination to another beneath the starry, sea-green vault of the Grand Central Terminal (not Station, unless you were down on the subway platform, not that anyone ever cared to get the distinction right anymore).

I’m a cross-current myself, thought Cross, and inwardly groaned at the pun, which wasn’t accurate in any case: he rarely felt current these days. He was ceaselessly borne back into the last century by his own tastes and temperament, but even in its waning days he felt as if he should have been born around 1899; even in the 1990s, he often felt like a man out of time, with everything that touched him—that nexus of typewriters and fedoras and seamed stockings, of vinyl and film stock and dust jackets—receding ever faster and farther from where he stood stranded on the other side of the Sixties. He couldn’t call it nostalgia, as he’d never really known it (what did Dave Marsh once write about Ray Davies? That he was born nostalgic?). What was the word for someone born behind his time? Retro might describe the aesthetic but not the peculiar longing. Someone born a man could, by surgery and chemistry, become a woman, but there was no operation yet to transform you into a wide-eyed visitor to the 1939 World’s Fair.

Well, that’s what art was for, thought Cross, who had to admit that laptops and email and the Web were awfully convenient developments (even if he felt deeply ambivalent about nearly every other manifestation of tech—he owned no iPod, bemoaned the eventual disappearance of 35mm, and felt that the cellular phone that lurked in his right coat pocket was placed there under duress). Part of the reason he liked to linger at the threshold of the Main Concourse was that Grand Central was one of the only places left in New York where you could still squint and see the vanished decades, if only for an instant. When he had first arrived in the city, Cross had enjoyed any number of mildly thrilling moments, especially during those first six months where the romance of New York held sway and the reality of it had yet to manifest: coming up out of the subway to see the Chelsea Hotel, walking into the lobby of the Empire State Building, stepping out of a Godard feature at Film Forum to the blaring of taxis backed up on Houston… but nothing was quite as satisfying as walking into Grand Central, restored over the previous decade to its old self, and seeing not just a preserved façade or fillip to the past, but a thriving, vibrant, workaday, useful place, where trains still arrived and departed and people rushed to and fro just as they had eighty years ago. It was just as you imagined it, had seen it in countless film and photographs—the only jarring element was the soldier in desert camouflage, cradling his matte black M-16, a sight at once mundane and unsettling.

Cross loved that about the place. If ever there was a rebuke to the destruction of the old Penn Station—a rebuke to the destruction of anything deemed beautiful but obsolete—it was Grand Central. He often found an excuse to be there, whether it was lunch at the Oyster Bar or just to take a shortcut from the library to Lexington. Or to stop in and look at the fountain pens at Joon, and marvel again at the silver and gold surfaces of his namesake’s products, the ballpoints and pencils that put him in mind of his father, who made a point of always having a Cross pen in his pocket and pretended to be a distant relative of A.T. Cross, as if the association would actually impress anyone. That was Cross’ father altogether.

The sudden, unkind thought about his father was typical of Cross. It brought him out of his reverie for a moment. He stood to the side of the passage, watching the uncountable heads swim in and out of focus. He remembered a joke his friend Milton had told him, about an actor friend who would always walk through the Main Concourse during rush hour only to stop, throw up his arms in exasperation, and cry out “What the hell is this?!? Grand Central?!?” It was the sort of dopey joke that would have made Cross smile every time, if he’d ever seen it. He might have made the joke himself, but he was usually flying solo through the terminal. He usually flew solo through most of New York.

How many people have walked, trotted, jogged, and run full tilt through this space since 1913, wondered Cross. How many eyes have glanced again and again to the clock atop the Information Booth, and how many bodies have embraced, hands been clasped, backs been slapped. Cross tried to guess at the number, but it was dizzying. One day’s worth of these moments would have been dizzying, let alone decades. To stand still and pay attention, like a photographer, or one of the lost souls to whom timetables had ceased to have meaning, was to stand at the lip of a vortex. There was a sort of vertigo to the terminal, Cross decided, that arose from any sustained engagement with its flow. If you were part of it, if you were moving or stopped purposefully, it was just New York, it was just Midtown: Let’s move it, grandma, this ain’t no rest home. But to take a break, to stand still and just watch it, not out of boredom but out of fascination, was like stepping outside of life itself.

Cross looked up at the constellations that had been rescued from decades of grime, clouds of neglect blown apart to reveal a clear night sky. Someone had told him that Jacqueline Onassis was instrumental in that, and now whenever he looked up at Orion he briefly thought of her. Strange, the associations, thought Cross: a gold pen and my father’s boastful smile; a ceiling and the world’s most famous widow. It then occurred to Cross that there was something both fixed and floating about Grand Central—that it was one of those buildings that was utterly of its time and yet weirdly timeless. Strange, too, how we think of anything that survives its moment as being outside of time, as if drained of it. Nothing is outside of time except eternity, and eternity might as well not exist for all it meant to human mind. Time is the mercy of eternity. Blake. But we invented eternity, thought Cross, along with love and gods and whatever else lay outside of our immediate perception.

Grand Central Terminal—it truly fit, thought Cross. Where everything is constantly pressing forward and constantly at an end. Cross put his newspaper under his arm, stepped forward, and slipped back in, and back out, of time.

Thursday
Jan102008

THE PRELUDE

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—To absent friends, said Jack Samson, holding his fourth or fifth martini high into the air, like a flag or a torch or, more likely, a flag he was about to turn into a torch.

Ray lifted his glass along with the fifty or so others, savoring the moment of semi-respectful silence before the cacophony swirled back in, pooling around the TV set where Dick Clark, stiff and stricken, the World’s Oldest Teenager ground down at last like everyone else, did his best to ring in the new year for what was likely (always, always likely) the last year he would ever know. Staring at Clark’s momentarily muted mouth, the lips struggling to shape words, the words halting before the threshold before limping out into the air, Ray began to count them—the absent friends, not the words. He wondered how many he could name in the fuzzy echo chamber of his brain in the three minutes before the countdown brought the cacophony to its false pitch, like a rocket that lifts off only to tip and list and plunge in a long, awful, helpless arc back to the earth.

Someone was saying something in his ear, a voice approaching a squeal, and Jack was waving his drink-free hand as if trying to get Ray’s attention, but Ray stared at Dick Clark’s mouth, which had a beat, even if you couldn’t dance to it, and as Clark doggedly spoke, as the hopes for the future that were betrayed in their utterance, as all hopes must, stumbled into the studio air and transmitted themselves to millions of ears too abuzz with champagne or apathy to acknowledge them as anything more than candles in a cursed darkness, Ray counted them, he counted them all—the absent friends, not the hopes.

Vickie appeared at his elbow.

—Why so glum, chum?

—I was thinking the list of absent friends gets longer every year… and I’m wishing Billie wasn’t on it, said Ray.

Vickie nodded and peered into the depths of her bourbon and knocked it back, all in one gesture. She gave Ray a wincing look that devolved into a sad smirk.

—To present friends, she said, holding up her nearly empty glass. Only the lonely know, and only the living care.

—Kill ‘em with kindness, replied Ray with a smile. Billie’s motto felt odd on his lips, as if he was doing an impersonation. But only Billie was ever any good at impersonating Billie.

—This time next year, said Vickie, it will be… this time next year. She gave the punch line an exaggerated, tipsy slur that her raised eyebrow, penciled in as high and curved as the St. Louis Arch, instantly mocked.

—And on and on until the end of the end of time, said Ray over the growing din. They looked at each other as only two people who know each other too well can look. Present friends, thought Ray. We are present, always, only present, until we’re not.

Jack’s voice rose up on a wave of other voices, chanting the countdown now, the long, grinding, cycling prelude to a kiss, the year past, coming to its climax, eleven… twelve… ten… Nine… Eight… Seven… SIX… FIVE… FOUR… THREE… TWO… ONE.

Goodbye, thought Ray as he kissed Vickie, holding her too close and too tight, goodbye, as the happy riot burst, present, around him, and the prelude, helpless, began again.

It was still a hell of a party. Ray didn’t even get home until the tenth.

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