30 April 2005

...more bare, more ruined...

St. George Ferry terminal
4/30/05 5:33 pm

The 5:30 boat was just canceled "due to circumstances beyond our control" -- looks as if the Andy B is disabled. Maybe it ran into the pier again, as the man across from me is proposing, laughing, to anyone who'll listen. Nearby, a father describes the scene slowly and in great detail into his cell phone, punctuating his commentary with barks at his 2 daughters fidgeting in a single seat next to me.

Reconstruction on the new St. George terminal is nearly done, a big improvement over its predecessor, which was just going under the knife on 9/11, 4 & a half years ago now. The Whitehall terminal on the Manhattan side has also been renovated, and was opened officially a month back despite the fact that the observation deck isn't quite ready and the sign out front still reads only N ISLAND FERRY.

Our house is about a mile away from here, a 20-minute walk along the harbor that, if prosecuted briskly enough, I can (with only a wisp of a qualm) regard as a good day's exercise, especially if I walk home on the return trip, which I usually do. Along the way, I pass through what will one day be the campus of the National Lighthouse Museum, but which as yet is still the ruins of the old Coast Guard Facility, itself built upon the ruins of the old Quarantine Station. Sometimes the plaza is thronged with people, as it has been for the NYC Marathon in November, and may be tomorrow for the 5-Boro Bike Tour. But this evening, in the fog, it was pretty spooky: the blasted out shells of the Old Lamp Shop & the Laboratory loomed eerily in the gathering dusk -- & even the pigeons clutched onto the Barrack's fire escape railing looked ominous as I passed underneath.

In my wife Deb's blog yesterday, she invoked (called in) the shade o' the Bard, whose "bare, ruined choirs" from Sonnet 73 evoked (called out) for her the spirit of sacred spaces. For me, this collection of wrecks beneath the ferry bus ramp constitutes a rent in the time-space continuum.

A building falls out of time when it falls into disuse. Once it was an idea, first in the planner's mind, then the architect's, then the builder's, until it finally became entirely itself upon being completed, occupied, and used as it was intended -- at which point it becomes not only an idea but an experience in the lives and minds of everyone who comes anywhere near it.

Once abandoned, however, a building reverts to being an object, a mere piling up of molecules escaping promiscuously into other bondings. If it retains any trace of being an idea, it's only in the arifacts of its construction -- the records in City Hall and in the archives of the various enterprises who erected and equipped and staffed it -- and in the stories of the people who built it or worked there once upon a time. The building itself is no longer itself: now it's just part of a landscape, and though it may inspire the odd reminder of mortality in passersby such as myself -- the flow of my thoughts touching on it as lightly and as fleetingly as a stream briefly touches on a stone it passes on its way -- it does nothing else but fall apart.

Or maybe now the building is *only* itself, now that all the ideas and stories and experiences that once were attached to it like tags on merchandise in a department store have fallen away, and its "thingness" can shine forth unoccluded -- a Buddhist take on the subject, perhaps. But the same could be said for the stone in the stream, so that discussion's going nowhere.

I'm not sufficiently disciplined as a philosopher to carry this meditation much further, but I do find it a remarkable thing to consider the difference between the new ferry terminals and the forthcoming Lighthouse Museum, for all that they're being reconstructed by people working for the same company, and using the same tools, materials, and techniques. Besides, I've got some empty time between now and when the boat comes, so let me try to fill it.

It's easy to figure out what purpose the renovations of the two ferry terminals will serve: the enterprise of ferrying folks back & forth across the harbor. They are nodes in a network of public transportation, where people on their way somewhere stop to change conveyances; they are also stations where people sometimes have to wait (remain stationary) on their journey, and so provide facilities that make the wait more bearable: seats, telephones, food concessions, rest rooms -- and *someday* there'll be an observation deck for those *really* long layovers.

"Terminal" is of course a relative term, referring only to the two ends of the ferry leg of the trip: no one lives here, so it can't be either the beginning or the end of anybody's travel plans -- though the Staten Island end is often the apogee of a sightseeing junket. (It takes about an hour round-trip from Manhattan, and the quiet sail across the harbor and back is not only gorgeous but restful -- depending, of course, on the weather and the time of day: rush hour is not especially pleasant, and in the fog, well, what's the point?)

But the Lighthouse Museum.... There isn't much use for a lighthouse in this neck of the spatio-temporal woods. Radar, sonar, and other fancy technology make it possible for ships to enter, traverse, and leave the harbor safely when visibility is zero, in pretty much any weather this side of a hurricane. And in any case, the lighthouse that once stood near the Staten Island Ferry was never used as a navigational aid, but rather to test out new equipment for implementation elsewhere. The Mission Statement of the new Lighthouse Museum avers that its purpose will be "Broadening the Public's Appreciation and Understanding of America's Lighthouse Heritage," and then goes on to detail how it plans to accomplish this noble mission (and I should say that, as mission statements go, this one is relatively non-toxic).

But what is this Heritage, especially with a capital H like that? I could reach for my _Webster's New Collegiate_, but that wouldn't give me the technical sense in which such a ponderous word is wielded in a non-profit's mission statement -- not to be cynical, but its value in such an instrument is its unassailability: no one's gonna come out in favor of destroying a Heritage, for crump's sake, as my father used to say.

Seems to me that Heritage is something somebody wants to keep just the way it was, as impossible as that is -- ask any Buddhist. Or rather to *restore* it to just the way it was, which of course is absurd in more than just the dharmic sense: like the faux lighthouse at one end of the promenade, the restored Machine Shop at the other end won't really do anything like what it was built for, but rather will re-present what it *used* to be for. When these buildings were in operation, nobody visited them in order to have their understanding or appreciation broadened, and I would bet that there wasn't much of a sense that America even had a Lighthouse Heritage, though there were plenty of working lighthouses at the time. It may be that for something to be a Heritage, it can't work any more.

This is the Age That Remembers, as someone once said (ironically, I can't remember who). I'm not sure if that's good or bad. No question the renovation will make the place safer and better looking, the whole project will create lots of jobs, and as a tourist attraction the Lighthouse Museum will contribute substantially to the local economy -- let's face it: a major reason ferry tourists turn around and go right back to Manhattan is that there's nothing to see when they get here, unless they want to get on another dang conveyance to Snug Harbor, Fort Wadsworth, or the Tibetan Museum. (Well, there's the ballpark next door, but the season's short and the SI Yanks aren't here half the time.)

A true cynic might draw an analogy between the new museum and a graveyard plot lovingly tended -- but this fails to take into account the motivation behind such tendance, to preserve (or in this case restore) a sense of how things were, perhaps to get some perspective on how things are with us now.

This is an act of imagination, not of recollection -- how many members of the planning committee, the architectural firm, or the contracting company, was even around when these buildings were alive? They're writing a script, laying down tracks, preparing a future for the past in this place.

Hesse once said that the third dimension of history is always fiction. But that's another rant.

Just now these buildings have nothing to say but "all things must pass." I'll be interested to find out what else they can tell me once they wake from their haunted sleep.

Boat's in. Gotta go.

25 April 2005

Blogging at Wegmans

A few years ago, I got in the habit of stopping at Wegmans on my way back from an overnight with friends who live out in the country in Berks County, PA. As I pulled into the parking lot, I always sang (to the tune of "Springtime for Hitler"):

at Wegmans...
in Allentown...

I'd enter through the Market Cafe door, head straight for the Boulangerie, and snap up a still-warm loaf of multigrain bread, then swing by the Coffee House for some decaf Donut Shop Roast, and park upstairs, either by the window to watch the shoppers coming and going, or else by the balcony railing to observe my fellow consumers browsing the boutique food stands, pointing, conferring, moving on, carts bumple-bumpling over the faux-marble tiles.

When Deb and I first moved to Staten Island 25 years ago, the Pathmark on Forest Avenue was the only supersized grocery store in reach (until we got a car a few years later -- refugees from Manhattan, we never needed one before). We'd joke that the Cold War would end in seconds if a handful of Russian housewives could only be transported to the produce section for an afternoon -- once back home, they'd pull down the entire economic structure of communism in no time. I don't remember how we thought that would actually work.

This afternoon, after a modestly productive visit to my therapist, I turned left instead of right off Cedar Crest onto Tilghman, for a sentimental journey to the Market Cafe (it's been months since I saw Berks County). Business was brisk in the caf proper, but upstairs in the balcony sat only a small work group at a central table, a loner like me gazing out the window over the parking lot at the bruise-colored sky, and a young mom with her two under-fives, the younger one cranking, the older full of questions. I unpacked by the railing, lifted the lid on my trusty iToilet, and started to blog.

Of course, my old hippie heart is grossed out by the utter vulgarity of so much *stuff* in one place. It would seem that Wegmans (and Shoprite and Giant and Target and Walmart and Costco and every other retailer in America) has pre-empted one of infomonger's early slogans: Everything. Everywhere. All the Time.

It's simply impossible to imagine that all of this product is actually moved, that in fact most of this phantasmagoria doesn't end up out back in the dumpster, to be hauled off to rot somewhere in -- well, if this were New York, it would be somewhere in Pennsylvania, but since this is already Pennsylvania, it must be... somewhere in Pennsylvania. But, as with so many things, I just don't know enough about how this works to be able to imagine any further.

On the walls are poster-size photos of Wegmans's early years, or so they're meant to suggest: in grainy black and white, two farm workers in stained driver shirts and suspendered trousers gaze unimpressed at the camera; an ancient tractor throws a cloud of dust over a horse-drawn wagon; a roadside stand displays its roughly piled wares beneath a sagging tattered awning.

Now there's a world I recognize: I grew up in the proto-burbs southwest of Pittsburgh, our quarter-acre cut from somebody's front forty, but we were early adopters -- and many of our neighbors looked exactly like those guys regarding us so skeptically from beneath the broke-brimmed newsboy cap and the fedora with the pinched-out peak. You can probably find that world's vestige not far from here, down the pike towards York, where the Amish still try to keep it simple.

But the rest of us let go that rope long ago, and the rising tide of *things* is lifting every boat there is, so seems there's nothing to do but surf as long as we can.

Which is probably how I manage to overcome so easily my pre-programmed disgust at this obscene spectacle of mega-consumption. Dr. Strangelove encouraged us to stop worrying and love the bomb -- and that turned out OK, didn't it? I mean, the nosh here is really cherce, the coffee's weakish but it kicks, and the people-watching, why, it's first-rate.

So this is how I kill the time between therapy and choir practice. That and

at Wegmans...
in Bethlehem...

23 April 2005

Earth's Ends II

Many of the poems in Andrew Kaufman's Earth's Ends dwell on the squalor if not the suffering of the poor in Southeast Asia and South America. But in this one he presents, hauntingly, a different end of earth:

The Observatory on the Altiplano, Hours from La Paz

Just as it is summer there when winter here,
to study the stars they did not look up, but down,
into a cistern built to reflect the heavens —
the sky was too vast
in the thin air

for those who would study the future
in the permafrost of the Milky Way
to crane upward for hours against the terrible
night winds. The emperor's statue stands
nearby, head hunched forward as if he had no neck,
shoulders squared in the posture
of a tyrannical American mayor. His eyes are rectangles,
mouth a straight line, nose gone. His hair

is bird shit and lichen, his legs covered with wind-
smothed hieroglyphs, the language
undeciphered. At this altitude a pinprick
of blackness opened in my head,
threatening to spill, like ink. Across the high plain
scrub grass glowed and flared

in the late sun. The driver
who brought me to this wind-
blasted ruin, hours from La Paz,
nothing between but altiplano,
stepped from his taxi again.
He measured what daylight was left
against the dangers of night roads.
Their names lost, I stared for the last time
into the faces of gods
eroding on what palace walls still stood,
their features open to the prophecies of the stars
and the judgements of the winds.

— Andrew Kaufman, Earth's Ends, 62.

18 April 2005

Testing the Blogger option

I've tried Radio Userland, but can't get it to work (a wetware failure on the client side, I'm sure), so here goes with Blogger...

(Here's a link Ye Olde Blogge, using Tinderbox HTML templates -- wish I could've figured out how to get everything to work all the time, but maybe I'll come back.)

10 April 2005

Our great and secret fear...

Adam said, "Our great and secret fear is that America may turn out to be a phenomenon, rather than a civilization. Hence, in part, the scale, the insistence, the need to prove the great mysteries obsolete or serviceable. We want our lust to be loved and called beautiful. To receive the homage due to love."
What a British author has an American say to his Australian wife in Shirley Hazzard's 1980 novel The Transit of Venus.