When I think of a piece of art, I think of the place I saw it. My memory of a work or an exhibition unfold visually like a map. I see work in it’s place which is silly to say, but when you exhibit art regularly you begin to see all the places it has hung as part of it’s story. When I was writing this I realized that I had written something this summer that actually lays out how I think about space in real time. It is exceedingly long, not about art and is a poor man’s version of the writers I like. 2016 isn’t starting with a review or interview, but with my experiment.
I wasn’t planning to share it here (or at all) but I needed to get something out to start writing here again. The phrase “prime the pump” comes to mind.
And so, without further ado, Nosebleed:
The morning began with a cough. S woke up with a stuttered cough, like morse code, progressing through his sleepy voice until it became a dull whine and a muffled sob. L, his twin, woke ready for the day and we went down stairs. L was sunshine and chatter, S was gloomy and phlegmy. In an attempt to help me to get his brother to blow his nose, L went ahead and blew his for encouragement. And shit, his nose starts to gush blood. Of course thats how it would go. He splattered blood as he became aware that his tissue was the wrong color. His little sad breaths became a red fountain on his pajamas and my feet. I took a tissue and wedged it in his right nostril and waited, while he sobbed, for his mother to turn on his favorite show. It is about Legos being Ninjas. It has almost no redeeming value.
I am remembering this as I listen to Brian Eno’s first ambient album, Discreet Music. It’s actually the first music that was labeled ambient, ever. It isn’t the album, what I am listing to as I have only owned it as a CD and now it is coming to me via my iPhone earbuds. So it’s a track. A file.
As Pachelbel’s Canon is warped and filling my ears, played by musicians to combine and become like a tape loop, I am walking out of the train tunnel towards another tunnel (a passage really) and then I will ascend an escalator to get to Madison Avenue. As I descend the dozen or so stairs from the train platform to the passage I notice the neck and back of the head of a woman, maybe sixty years old, with gray hair and a blue raincoat. This could be my ex-mother-in-law. So many hyphens. I spend two stairs trying to remember her first name and the rest of the time (seven more stairs) assessing the improbability factor of it actually being her. I determine that the number of events that would have needed to occur to put her here, on this train and on this platform would be not improbable but impossible. I see clearly from her profile, now having stepped into the passage, that she is not the woman my brain decided she could have been. Not even close.
I use the left or walking side of the escalator. My ride affords me a view of the backpack of a man maybe ten years my senior. The backpack is that many years old as well. We pass by waists and legs and ankles. I see people standing on two different stairs as they ride. As we get closer to the topside, I can see people’s heads and torsos moving east to west outside on 47th Street. We alight in unison, backpack and I, on the left side of the escalator. Pass on the left, just like Driver’s Ed.
The weather is rain that isn’t falling. It is June and though humid, the fresh air on the surface versus the steam tunnel/ train track side of the world makes me feel cool and alive. Light and Alight. I am happy to be anywhere that isn’t filled with bleeding children. L’s nose clotted and after 5 minutes I removed the tissue. The red slick mass that came out after the red soaked fiber was an all blood form, roughly as long as a small worm and similarly writhing. I gawked at the worm, it’s crimson sheen and the gelatinous texture and my stomach turned. I scooped it into a tissue and replaced the plug with a fresh one, all the while L was trying to stay calm but snorfing little snorfs of blood tinged air. I could taste that aluminum taste in my throat in a sympathetic sensory gesture.
As I approach 48th Street, I see a woman with an intense green patterned dress or blouse from behind, reminding me simultaneously of Victor Vasarely and of the fact that when I look in shop windows I have noticed that it is now a very common practice to use Op-Art as fabric design. The rain fell here before, maybe last night, but the sidewalk seems too damp and slick-gray-black for it to have been anything less than minutes, not hours As I approach the sidewalk’s edge and strings swell in my white earbuds it occurs to me that I know this piece of music now because of an experimental music class I audited in 1999, but that it is built from the all too familiar wedding soundtrack, ubiquitous first in movies and TV shows and then in my actual life. I wonder if it is possible that the reason my ex-mother-in-law came to mind was this piece of music and then I determine it must be, all before I leave the intersection.
As I step down into the street, I notice the homeless woman that is always there, looking like a crust punk that stepped right out of a Dorothea Lange photo and forward eighty years. She sits aside the entrance to Starbucks, occasionally with a man, approximately her age and appearing to be Spanish or Portuguese, although possibly South American, hunched over her. This is the only way I have seen them interact. Woman, maybe 25 years old, sitting on the sidewalk on some cardboard with a man, probably 6’ 1 and 30 years of age, hunched at a 100 degree angle to speak to her. He has a sketchbook, but he isn’t here today. Actually she is behind me while I think this, so all of this is memory anyway and on recent days she wasn’t here at all. Or maybe I walked up Park instead of Madison so many days in a row I have simply missed her often due to my own personal routing and not her place in the world.
The building ahead of me, home to an ad agency or several, has recently spruced up it’s entrance leading to months of slippery slightly elevated walkways. Painted plywood allowed passage while they poured concrete and jack hammered. The buildings columns, three two-story pillars that are concrete, are now frosted with white glass on the north and south sides. The column that is furthest north has an Apple product like glow with the number 437 vertically displayed in a possibly trademark infringing way. I imagine a high wattage halogen buzzing inside, collecting insect husks as they stay a constant warm temperature that attracts and then roasts small flying things.
While Eno plays, or rather the orchestration by Eno plays, rain begins to fall at minimal intervals. Every step I get a new drop, landing on my head and shoulders but never enough to warrant umbrella opening. The only people on the street now opening umbrellas seem to be people with impossible hairdos and expensive clothing and I can respect that. Everyone else moves forward at their New York pace, texting elaborate instructions to spouses and co-workers and nannies.
I have seven blocks left as I pass the Palace hotel’s gilded courtyard. The steel grates that allow heat to escape from the train tunnels, as well as providing service access to the hotel’s lower floors, feel impossibly weak today. People die when these things collapse so I step left, starting a reformation of the phalanx about five steps in front of me headed south. One man moves into the street, unconcerned. We pass and as the next street corner nears, I notice the slight decline. I am, albeit briefly headed down hill. For the first time ever I wonder if this hill was an original part of New York or part of its layer cake-like construction. Was this decline towards sea level of maybe two feet at the northernmost edge of Madison Avenue at 51st street here when the street wasn’t?
As I walked down the hill to the station in the morning, slanted severely because I live in a so called “Rivertown” on the Eastern edge of the Hudson, I was surprised by the change leaving my house twenty minutes early made. I saw school children headed to the local High School, unsupervised, opting to walk to their classes to avoid the social crucible of the school bus, which I so loathed after a certain age. My wife needed to get to Pennsylvania early to deal with her clients, a Pharmaceutical company in search of Key Opinion Leaders to tell about disease states in which their product could serve as ongoing (read expensive) therapies.
Since L’s nose gusher has stopped and the blood tide was no longer and S’s phlegm and discomfort had no fever and his eye goop had subsided, we agreed to send them to school. Today’s division of labor required her to drive them to school and me to walk to the train and I realize as I get to 52nd street that I have been walking down hill the whole block and now have had at least two city blocks of downhill decline before it levels out on the way to 53rd. I know that 53rd, a busier block than most, with Citi Bike docks and 2 Subway entrances is level and that it is possible that the perceived hill could have just been a fairly minor blip in the topography of Manhattan. I do love that there are places way uptown that still have the names they were given in the 1700’s. Waterways and hills in parks that are called by dutch names. Spuyten Duyvil. This kills and that kills.
As I wait at the corner, I remember that 52nd used to have Jazz clubs in the 50’s. I try hard to remember if the place Miles Davis got punched by the cops was on 52nd, or was at Birdland after it wasn’t in Midtown anymore and I decide that when I get to work Wikipedia will let me know. Also, I realize that first I thought of Miles Davis and his bloody nose, and that the music I hear was contemporaneous with Miles funk-jazz fusion but is constructed out of classical music. Still, I loved jazz first and often find myself seeking out the Miles Davis Quintet Prestige records (called Cookin’ Steamin’ Workin’ and Relaxin’) in moments when words seem to fail.
As I approach the corner a woman catches my eye and I realize that she is a woman I have been passing on the street for most of 8 years that I have had this commute. She has cafe con leche colored skin and her hair is corkscrew curly and she usually has a no nonsense look about her that means business but not today. Today she is walking with a guy in a baseball cap and they both look happy. They look their age, which I perceive as young since they are a few years younger than me. When did 30 seem young? Not when I started this commute and I was 29. I had no noses to stop bleeding but my own back then.
As the damp air starts to make my shirt stick to me I wish that I had my iced coffee. The iced coffee I had this morning, from the coffee guy at the train station at home, was serviceable but fell short of my demanding expectations. Though the ice to coffee ratio was to my liking, about six cubes to a 16 oz. cup rather than the all too common fifteen or twenty cubes, the cup itself was deficient. The paper cup used for hot coffee was thin and allowing much of the cold to escape and I could feel the condensation making the cup less stable. I imagined the eventual breakdown of the cup like the viscous blood, washing over my sneakers soles as it split and slid on the floor of my train as it moved south along the Hudson. The straw I was given didn’t fit snugly under the lid, made for sipping not straw insertion, so I expected that I would end up with coffee splattered on my shirt. My iced coffee is different. It usually comes from a cart on Park Avenue at 54th street. The two men who work inside are efficient. They are the fourth long term coffee cart relationship I have had in these eight years.
As I get to 53rd and Madison, I remember my favorite coffee cart proprietor, who was one block away on the Northwest side of 53rd at Park. His family lived in Egypt and he was hardworking and quick to smile and asked after my then very small twin boys. I was always in need of hot or cold coffee, which he always added only just a splash of milk (iced) or cream (hot) to. The splash of milk in iced coffee makes the whole thing caramel colored and takes that tiny edge of bitter gauze-in-your-cheek flavor away. I step under the scaffolding at 53rd, step around the east/west bound foot traffic and continue north as the drone of a bass makes my stomach do that weird thing like when our stationwagon used to hit a bump and half a second would pass where you were in the air. I wish I could replace the gut rumbling bass with Miles doing It Never Entered My Mind, a show tune, appropriated and treated with great care as Coltrane and Miles often did.
The building on the West side of Madison between 53rd and 54th comes into view at the upper left of my vision and it’s odd slanted base makes me wonder. Is it possible my ideas about the descending altitude of previous blocks (50th to 52nd) were triggered by the obvious slant of this odd smooth brick colored form like a sleek pedestal from the Apple store, but in a color I could best describe as red clay slurry. There’s no blood in this red, no coffee or cream. And finally as the strings fade and my stomach returns to the way back of the station wagon, a brief silence comes from my ear buds allowing more street noise to rush in. Instead of horns or sirens, idol chatter or moderate conversation, I mostly hear white noise. That noise, provided by a bus about to board passengers on the uptown express M1, is at a friendly decibel. The warm stale burp of steam from it’s exhaust is not. And I know that once I am near the fruit seller at 54th Street, across from Smilers, a deli that is somewhat over priced and certainly has no one smiling inside, I will be clear of the bus exhaust and on the slick surface that has caused me to lose my footing more than once. That block, rapidly becoming this block after I step over the Toynbee tile that remarks on the auteur Stanley Kubrick embedded in the sidewalk, has a flat slate sidewalk. On this particular sidewalk there are 5 trees that have large fenced in areas around them and this causes congestion and blocks nearly half the sidewalks width which is now coupled with the potential for slipping on a barely rainy day.
Now that I am past 54th and I look closer at the small corrals that the trees are in, with metal fencing, they only take up two fifths of the street’s width, which is still too much. While building with Legos this morning L had made a box to put his favorite pieces inside but had used the two dot wide block instead of the skinnier version, hence making the interior of his already small box only large enough for the very smallest of treasures. He knows that I encourage him to only put legos inside of legos because I am anal retentive and it becomes very difficult to sort things into and out of legos. So when he is planning to defy me, he asks me politely to have some alone time to play. I know that this means some sort of small transgression. Still, knowing the modest size of his Lego constructed box I imagine he can’t get into too much trouble. This city block is like his Lego construction, there just isnt enough room.
So now as I approach 55th street, I plan to run into an intersection plagued by construction, but not before I peak in the window at Baumann which deals in first edition books, maps, letters and literary ephemera. The only thing that catches my eye is a copy of a book I know that I have never read. The book is unimportant really, but it is a book I most certainly should have read in high school. You know those books, Kerouac’s On the Road or Hesse’s Siddhartha or maybe Gibran’s The Prophet, which are associated with a type of awakening that could be spiritual or at the very least better for the soul than Hawthorne and some of the depressing and rigid literature I read in High School. Still this book, which I am fairly certain my wife has a nice copy of at home, looks important and Hard Covered and the dust jacket is just that little bit aged the way a laminated high-gloss sheet ages on a bookshelf. Still, this book…I should have read it.
So I wonder then, while glancing at my waist in reflection of a window, what is the most shameful omission from my mental library? I read Moby Dick five years ago at an age where I should have been well past it. Since getting a Kindle I have been able to A) avoid looking dumb by carrying a book I should have read in my teens or Twenties at least and B) been able to read huge books without having to carry them down the hill in the morning and back up at night. The hill I am referring to is my “Rivertown”, not the one at Madison between 50th and 52nd.
Unfortunately all this thinking about books has landed me by a high construction fence catty corner from the Sony building (550 Madison for the folks at home) and I hate this intersection. It is emotionally charged. I nearly was hit by a car at this intersection and began an ill-advised yelling match with the driver. The block also houses one of my old favorite places to drink, a very upscale eatery with a bar that serves a flavored vodka like clear alcohol called Aquavit. The place and the drink are called this. Also the Friar’s Club, which is not a place I have stepped foot in, is on this block. My great uncle’s best friend and I ran into one another outside. I did not know he was a member and I could not remember his name and as of this moment I can’t either. But still, across the street is Sony and I have been in there.
An old friend of mine worked at Sony and an old friend of mine works at Sony and those are two different stories. My friend that worked at Sony worked at the label within the company that did reissues and releases from the so called vaults. He often gave me records. Miles Davis being the one I asked for most often. He introduced me to many artists and specifically expanded my knowledge of the ones I love and I realize the fact that Sony is here and that so many of my Miles records, and by that I still mean CD’s, came from right there, across the street. My other old friend who works there now. She and I met when she was in her first and I was in my second year of college. She wanted to do drugs on a day where everyone was doing drugs and I talked her out of it. She has had some odd detours and bad tattoos and I don’t really know either of these friends well anymore but I miss their friendships, the way they were, more than the people themselves. And I know that they love music and I wish that there was a part of me that could still devote time and energy to seeing shows, hearing live music but I feel old and estranged from that world.
As the small glitchy bits of Bjork’s All Neon Like replace the Eno’s Brutal Ardour (his words, not mine) I realize I have spent two months putting off a trip to see a show focused on her. Her being Bjork. I do not often listen to Bjork but when the show opened I dumped many songs, maybe 5 albums worth, none of which were put out by Sony, onto my iPhone. So now, the ill reviewed show is nearby, just two avenues and one block from where I am and I still haven’t dragged myself in to experience it. Bjork is a transformational figure in the pop music scene. Her function has often been as a high priestess of weirdness.
This last block has my building on it. This block has the construction of an 80 story, 1,300 foot tower, a Lego tower, a sky line changer and an nuisance for all that live and work in the vicinity. It is between 56th and 57th on Madison. The construction is mostly on the eastern Park Avenue side of the block. For years a fence was all there was to see from the street. But from our crusty window at the gallery, or rather my colleagues window, we saw grass. For five years a patch of very valuable Park Ave real estate lay fallow like some field left to rest between planting soy or corn. And though I see the top of this building from all over, it is the way it looked before it was there that stands most clear in my mind. Now that I am most of the way to 57th Street and the steady steam of businesspeople are entering their tall buildings, I can see towards the corner where the two people that my older colleagues call “The Homeless” live. They are the homeless the way our clients who live in China are “The Chinese” and our prints by an artist named Smith are “The Smiths”.
“The Homeless” are a couple that occupy a small patch of ground at 57th and Madison and they have made certain that their place stays their place by never leaving. The greatness in disparity of wealth between the passersby and the two people that sit at this corner is of no concern to me. What concerns me is their choice of location. It is unshielded by the weather, is half a block from an air and noise polluting construction site and now is home to a 30 foot long hole in the ground with a jagged wooden fence which is eating up some of their living space. Here at “The Homeless” corner of 57th and Madison is my right turn that feels like a left turn if you know what I mean. If I had a blinker I would have put it on back by the high end eyeglass store, where I always look but only with a sideways glance and never seriously because everything there is crazy expensive.
And in a blink it’s over and I step into the lobby of my suitably high rent building in my high rent neighborhood where I sell my high-end goods. The AC smacks me in the face and the super fist bumps my knuckles and just now I can feel the sweat on my brow filling the pores with oil and dirt.
A day can be 10 blocks long or eight years in the making and how would I ever notice. But then somedays all I can do is notice: people and buildings and sounds and all the things there are to notice and it all floods in. The blood on the tissue box, which is parakeet yellow, is brown now. Or maybe rust. As I write this, after all of these moments have piled up and boiled together in my mind like water and vegetables and bones left to simmer, I wish I had less to say but all I have is soup I realize I have appropriated if not completely stolen from Nicholson Baker, who’s The Anthologist I have just consumed before re-reading Ben Lerner’s 10:04. Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief was just before Baker so I have read all this first person narrative and I am writing this fully aware that it is worse, and possible just bad, and most certainly so in comparison to those three gifted storytellers. And my morning, the waking and the bleeding and the walking and the coffee (probably the reason for so many of the over caffeinated diatribes and monologues that I am guilty of) and the music that swells and drones and does other things that words do so poorly to elaborate upon is all a byproduct of their well-written, self-involved leitmotif. And while I write leitmotif, which I certainly had to spell check and most certainly originally spelled as two words I think of an all white coffee cup that my friend and co-worker K had at her desk today. The first thing that made me laugh on this day, the day of the nosebleed, was the white cup with the word “Olay” at the bottom. She had ordered a cafe “Olay”.
– Jeff Bergman
June 2015 and January 2016