Where and When

So much of the arslocii experience – the feel of placeness commingled with the mindfulness of art, held together, often, with a tissue-thin wrapping of empathy – has to do not only with presence but also the present. The perception of art and the strength of its impact has, as a key element, to do with time – the time of day you see it, the length of time you’re with it, the time in your life you perceive it.

There are some loci of placeness that affect you no matter the time variable: morning, night, spring or winter, at a youthful age or in later years, these places just have that ineffable “it,” a charisma, a baraka, making us feel as if we are being reunited with an entity from which we were separated at birth. A memory, recalled. But, for most other place experiences, time is a defining factor.

I am not one, American though I am, who thinks that sports is art, or an art; in many American minds, games and athletes seem to have supplanted art as a high, or even highest, form of human attainment. But I am certainly aware that, from art’s very beginnings, the athlete in the midst of some physical endeavor has been a subject-matter honorific staple, from the kinetic grace of the discus thrower to, God help us, Leroy Neiman’s drippy-gloppy Playboy-era renderings. Yet, every year for the past two-and-a-half decades of my life, I have found myself drawn to a sporting event that passes  by not far from where I live, and in it I have found something artistic, and even something arslocii.

It is a bicycle race that runs for more than 120 miles, circling through the city, and, in its looping course, coming multiple times up a ridiculously steep hill, nearby, that tests the strength, agility, ability and smarts of the participants. They call the spot “The Wall,” and when you hit it, you really hit it.

It has become something of a tradition with us: We get up somewhat early; the race begins at 9 a.m. about 7 miles away. Sometime between 9:15 and 9:30, the racers have made their way to our area, to attempt their first ascent. We know, attuned as we are now, when to start out and how long it takes to walk the two blocks from our house to what has become our favorite viewing spot along The Wall, so that we can see the cyclists, already miles into what will be a grueling day, struggle up the hill. That time of morning, even on what will inevitably become a drainingly hot June day, it is still crisp, even a little dewy. The sun hasn’t yet awakened and realized that its job is to help the vendors of high-priced cool liquids. The crowds – and this race, and especially this particular part of the course, attracts perhaps thousands – haven’t yet arrived. The cordoned-off street is sparsely populated with aficionados, or, like us, traditionalists, and neighbors. Good vantage points along the barriers separating viewers from participants are easily had; in an hour or two they will be filled, three deep in spots. You can almost, at this moment, taste the anticipation, smell the potential energy. We few, we happy few, we still half-asleep few, stand by the barricades, look down the hill, and know that something wicked-good this way comes.

And then, it’s here: First, the sirens and horns, and the police motorcycle escort rumbles by in perfect formation. Then, cars with race officials, and media, and friends of the sponsors, roar by, honking and blinking their lights, trying to convince us that they, too, are in the race and not just gladhanders. We viewers move even closer to the metal grating of the portable barriers, and we grip the top rail of them, and lean out over them, to get the first glimpse.

And here they come: At first, just a row, then a group, then a phalanx, and then a sea – of multi-colored team uniforms and helmets, from a distance a strange oceanic wave rocking back and forth in rhythmic fashion, drifting closer. And then, they are at our side, this peloton, these athletes, already laboring to make it up the hill, of which there is much more to go from where we stand. The cyclists’ faces are grim, determined; their arms, taut on the handlebars of their aerodynamically austere bikes; their calves bulging, already on the edge of cramp. Dozens, a hundred, swoosh by, and we greet them and celebrate them with cheers, and whoops of encouragement, and the clanging of cowbells, a welling up of not only human kindness or sports fandom but an empathetic desire to give them our strength, a gift that will help propel them up the hill and send them on their way more easily. For a moment, we give them us – an odd symbiosis. The cyclists are not artists, and what they do is not art-making, but there is art in the color and kineticism, and in the relationship between us and them. Not Art with a capital A, but art that rhymes with heart. 

And then they are past and gone, except for a few stragglers, whom we give our loudest cheers and deepest support, to urge them to keep going, keep at it, catch up with the pack, go for the gold – and, once they’ve struggled past, in the residual roiled quiet we make our separate ways home, as if from a dream, or to return to one. The race will go on, most of it without us. But we had that moment. Alone, individual, we shared it.

Or, that is, we used to. This year, the real world encroached, and financial considerations caused the race organizers to pare down the event, cutting the 14-plus mile circuit from 10 loops to seven. And the way they decided to cut was from the top – that is, the race started at 10:45 a.m. Which meant that the first assault on the hill didn’t arrive at our location until about 11 a.m.

The later time changes the way we see it; it feels different on our skin; our noses sense something else, something more already-used; our bodies are not as tight and stiff as an early-morning body is; there are more viewers, and not just our in-the-know veterans, but callow interlopers; it seems to be no longer our turf but just another place. And when the cyclists do appear, there is something indescribable gone – they are no longer a cloud of fantasy but some bunch of bikers, interrupting our brunch. There is still excitement, of a base sort, but what was once special, magical, unintentionally but definitely artful, is now a reminder of a world ruled by and transformed into a commodity. The thrill is gone, and with it the magic.

And so is the art. And the placeness. When the experiential elements alter, even by a few ticks of the clock, the world is a changed place, as are the events in it.

To paraphrase Woody Allen’s oft-quoted bon mot about success, 80 percent of arslocii is showing up. The other 20 percent is showing up at the right time.

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Filed under Art & Architecture, Culture, Musings, Philly-centric, Random

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