Seeing Spots

We met in the Catskills, and arranged to meet again a few days later, in New York City. I think we both knew that something very interesting was bubbling between us, and so quickly, too. (And now, together 35 years, it’s clear that we were pretty much right on the money about it.) We took a walk, a long one, all over the East Side of midtown (as deserted as Manhattan ever gets in the late-night hours), winding our way up and down the number streets, click-clacking through an eerily unpopulated Grand Central and onto Park Avenue, where we found a low wall to sit on in front of a tall building we didn’t pay much attention to. As water jets burbled and splashed into a wide pool behind us, and as we occasionally broke our gazes at each other to focus aimlessly at another meaningless tall building catercorner from us, we talked and talked, and talked some more, exchanging information and intimacies, sharing secrets to see if the other would be shocked by the revelations, and if they would be deal-breakers. We were testing the waters by throwing boulders into them. By night’s end, we had two things: a very real and certain relationship that’s more than we ever could have imagined … and we had a spot. “Our spot.” In our minds, the place where it all began for real – a low wall along a big street in the middle of New York.

For years afterwards, and periodically more recently, when we’ve been in New York we’ve stopped by “our spot,” for old times’ sake, to try to feel again that wonder of the first time. And we usually do. That’s what “spots” are for: to act as touchstones to our past, to encourage our hearts to re-experience a thrill or a defining time or that moment that changed a lot, or everything. Like a tune that becomes “our song,” a spot brings back a vivid “then,” even complete with the echoes of the sounds and the waftings of the smells, and the perhaps-idealized memory of the words spoken, and of that face. Sometimes your “spot” has become so iconic and totemic in your life, what happened there is, in your mind, a sort of tableau or stage set, and you have an out-of-body experience, seeing yourself, as from a distance, as part of the display, one of the mannequins, a member of the cast – you, but apart from yourself. Our “spots” have a placeness so thick, we continue to “see” what happened there even when the “spot” has been altered, even destroyed. In the art of living, it is a placeness that, once lived, never dies. It is as close to having an encounter with ghosts as one is likely to have. And these “spots” are so strong, so integral to the psychological infrastructure upon which who we are is built, that just to be at a “spot,” even a changed or missing one, can make us cry or laugh, regret, shiver … wonder.

It is an amazing thing about us humans: that we seem to have a need to imbue locations connected with seminal events with a kind of secular holiness to potent that we are moved to see visions, not of a god but of ourselves when we thought that we were gods, or others were devils. So immensely enthralling are these, our “spots,” that it is hard to believe that others walk past them or drive by them or even pause at them, yet do not perceive the power there, the emotion, and do not see the spectral remnants of us there, then, played in a loop for all time. How can they not see that? It’s there.

So – that low wall, on Park Avenue, on a warm night, with nary another soul in sight – “our spot.” But here’s the funny thing, the little kicker to this tale: Those few square feet of wall, and the polished-brass hydrants that stick out from it where our dangling feet rested – that is our shrine, the Mecca of our pilgrimages … and all the time we didn’t know or realize or care that, on that wall, at what would become “our spot,” our backs were turned to that tall building … which happened to be the Mies van der Rohe / Philip Johnson Seagram Building, one of the most significant in all of New York. The water feature and the wide plaza – among the most stunning and influential setbacks in all of New York architecture – should have been the giveaway. And that tall building across the wide, divided Park Avenue, catercorner from us – the one that we would flick a look at from time to time? Gordon Bunshaft’s equally important Lever House. Both buildings great and vital contributors to the Modernist movement, New York’s skyline treasures and the general 20th-century boogie-woogie.

But, you can have them – they can crumble and fall, or get a new skin, or bay windows, or ground-to-roof neon-advertising billboards. So what? In the history of architecture, they have a place. But they are nothing to “our spot.” Mere backdrops to it. When we see them, we see textbooks; when we see “our spot,” we see us. And that’s where true placeness lies.

 

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Filed under Art & Architecture, Culture, Life, Musings, Random

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