Here’s the irony – that a place designed to be the jumping-off spot to get you to thousands of other places perhaps has no placeness of its own – and here’s food for thought: Just about every location that we have written about here which we state has “placeness” has always defined “placeness” as being a positive attribute … so, can there be negative placeness, too?
Due to no fault of my own (unless you believe in karmic punishment), I recently found myself the victim of missed intercity bus connections – thanks a whole lot, Adirondack Trailways; up yours, Greyhound; take a full flying leap, Megabus) – and thus spent way, way too much time hanging around departure gates in New York City’s version of the right-side panel of “The Garden of Earthly Delights”: the Port Authority building.
Harried, misdirected, ill-informed, schedule-strained, sweaty and nervous passengers, each with too many too-big bags carried and rolled and dragged and pushed from one uninformative loading-dock doorway to another, from one building to another, find themselves funneled into a subterranean hell pit teeming with similar misfortunates, predators, beggars, uncaring and unhelpful employees, homeless, home-bound, home-found and the temporarily and permanently lost. It smells, it’s dirty, the lighting defies international illumination standards and odds are you are either at the moment or will very shortly discover that you are standing in something you wish you weren’t. Lines of good people pushed to the edge wait by sliding doors which open, every now and then, but do not announce imminent boarding or disembarking, but rather seemed designed only to permit diesel fumes to engulf all nearby. Everybody asks questions – Is this the right gate? Is it running on time? Do I need to check my bags? Will I need to change in Springfield? – and for every query there are three answers from bus-company employees, all of them wrong or unclear. Nostradamus is said to have spied the future, but Hieronymus Bosch certainly painted it.
As I waited for the two-hour ride to get home, which took, instead, four hours, was the wrong bus, and instead of an express it made three stops (but who’s counting), I wondered (something you have the time to do if you don’t purposely zone out in an act of self-preservation and actually allow yourself to think) how it could be that this roiling wonderland, with its combustion-engine tentacles slung out to all corners of the continent, could so lack placeness. It had interest, it had humanity (in extremis), it clearly had memorableness, it had uniqueness (unless you live most of the time on Mumbai streets) – but what kept it from having “placeness,” as I had come to define the term, was that it didn’t have engagement, and challenge, and invitation to the senses (instead of an assault on them), and the kind of empathy we’ve discussed in which you feel that you know the place because it somehow includes a recognition, a self-recognition, and a fulfillment, in which you and the place and objects in that place interlock, as if long-lost siblings who know, just know, that they’re made of the same stuff. More controversial is the notion that the Port Authority lacks placeness because it lacks beauty, of any sort; not all placeness requires or projects beauty, but there is something beautiful at least in the notion of a placeness-redolent place, even if it seems more rough than beautiful.
But then I wondered (I had the time; I was into only the 20th minute of a 40-minute late stretch): What if I’m wrong? What if I’m missing the point here – that this place, which has such impact (though horrifying) and is so memorable (in a nightmarish way) does have placeness, but negative placeness, like an evil-twin placeness, or a Bizarro-world placeness, a George Costanza placeness: that whatever you know to be the definition of placeness, this is the opposite … and, yet, has a placeness, too. It is the dark side of placeness, but as with all such darkness, it may be necessary for it to exist so that we know the brightness.
Frankly, though fascinating to bump into the dark-matter placeness and realize its existence, I prefer the positive placeness we have written about here for years – the same way I like to arrive at a destination on time, to make my connection. And, next time, to use Amtrak. All things considered, in the Garden of Earthly Delights, I’ll stick to the other two panels.