Tag Archives: Ground Zero

Becoming a Word

At family events, when there was too much swirling activity and raised voices, too many bodies bumping up against each other in the kitchen, way too many kids spinning out of control, my grandmother would say, in her thick accent, that the roiling, rambunctious scene was a “kesselgarten.” Growing up, I always thought that this was either a Yiddish term of misty and indefinite origin, or another of those Yiddish/Russian/Ukraine/shtetl hybrid things that she often uttered, to the confusion of even her husband, who had been raised in the same part of the world but in the city, not the countryside. Then, sometime later, I learned that this word, “kesselgarten,” actually was derived from Castle Garden, the place in New York where immigrants disembarked in the United States before Ellis Island became that intake destination. So, the turmoil, emotions and energy of Castle Garden were boiled down to an essence and converted from a specific place to a generalized generic term, which in turn bestowed a newly applied placeness to whichever location it was now used to describe. Castle Garden, long forgotten, had become “kesselgarten,” a sort of portmanteau word with a life of its own. (In fact, “kesselgarten” must have already attained that separate status even by the time my grandmother emigrated here, because she never set foot in Castle Garden, having landed somewhere else. And, interestingly, there never was a word or phrase like this generated by the experience of being in Ellis Island.)

There are locations so full of placeness that they have become, over time, terms of specific meaning that are long divorced from connection with their geographical origin but which have retained, have even heightened, the inherent characteristic that made those locations memorable.

Consider: How often is the word “bedlam” used to describe a mass, unorganized, unruly gathering or celebration? How many know that the origin of this handy, weighted word  (perhaps overused by sportscasters to describe fan hysteria) comes from a place, Bedlam, once a notorious institution for the insane in London. The awful, palpable placeness of Bedlam not only overcame any link to its own origin – it is itself a corruption of Bethlehem, a much more benign association – but became a much-used, standalone noun and adjective.

Frankly, not too many other real places that have become lower-case descriptors come to mind – not in all the centuries that we humans have been giving names to locations and talking and writing about them. There’s Waterloo – Napoleon’s place of failure – that now is used to denote anyone’s downfall, but it’s hard to think of other such place-based incidents that have taken the same path. Watergate has not become a noun, verb or adjective, but the latter part of it – “gate” – is now attached by eager-to-pigeonhole media as a convenient suffix to instantly denote a scandal: Irangate, Bonusgate, Travelgate and so on. 

More often, but not all that more often, mythology is the source, but in the strangest of ways: People create a fictional place needed to exist to satisfy the needs of their belief system – Heaven and Hell and Eden, in the Judeo-Christian canon, for example, or Paradise – then, over time, that fabricated reality becomes a generalized noun or adjective, so that “heavenly” has little to do with Heaven, but rather with something very nice, and “hellish” can mean simply horrific, not directly related to the place that Satan is said to rule. Scylla and Charybdis, of Greek mythology, are the original “between a rock and a hard place,” but, again, there are not many other such places-become-words. Indeed, often it is an object in a place that takes on new lexicon life, not the place itself. Troy has no meaning beyond itself; Trojan horse does, though.

Why do some places become immortalized as dictionary entries and others not? Often, perhaps usually, the ones that do make it are places with extreme pleasurable or painful placeness – but Hiroshima has not, nor has Ground Zero, Gettysburg or Chernobyl. Killing Fields has, to some extent, but what others? This transmigration also seems to need a personalized aspect – the victims of Bedlam, the individual lost in Castle Garden – but, there, too, it is not widely applied. The most personalized place of universal and symbolic grief and myth, Calvary, has no application beyond its geographical existence. Obviously, there is no forcing of this sort of thing, no merchandising or packaging it, to make it so. It either happens or it doesn’t. Frankly, the why this/not that defies explanation, possibly even analysis.

What does seem clear, though, is that our current world is home to almost no places with undeniable placeness sufficient to become that part of our collective mythology or cultural ethos that demands inclusion into our language to explain what it is we are and do. We seem to live in places that do not reflect us, or us them; they are not places that tap into our souls or dreams, so that by their mere mention, in a kind of shorthand, we understand the world and each other more and better. It’s a paucity of language, it’s a bankruptcy of placeness, it’s a continuing sign of the decay of our ability to frame and tell stories and create meaningful conventions. When everything and everywhere is so accessible and commonplace and similar, nothing is colorful, nowhere signifies and metaphor dies.

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Hearts and Minds

Every town has its center, and every place has its heart. They sometimes are the same, but not always – maybe even not usually. Which is odd. And we’re not talking about a geographical center, but rather that spot, that square or plaza or district that one would say defines a city or town, or where crowds mass to celebrate events or to protest actions or to search out one another during emergencies – that public place that says, “This is the locale of civic identity, all are welcome here, this is where you know where you are.”

A place’s heart is different; in fact, a place is a complex animal that can and often does have multiple hearts. They can be established based on common consensus (although such voting-for-heart seldom “takes” or, if it does, rarely has long life), they can be created based on events (no one ever would have called the World Trade Center towers a heart of New York, but Ground Zero now is) … and, occasionally, there is just an inexplicable, almost magical “something” to a place that gives it a placeness, a life vibration, a field of empathy that, to a group, not only is impossible to resist but has a goodness that no one would willingly desire to avoid. A place that not only draws you in but draws you out – and, as an artist would, draws you. A place of heart – a place of art. And it provides you, simply by being there, with a portrait of yourself – and a flattering one, too. A place of heart says, “This is the locale of your inner identity, all who are looking for this place (even if you didn’t know that you were) are welcome here, this is where you know who you are.”

What comes to mind, in this discussion, is Woodstock, New York, a place we visit and love and, as you may remember reading in a previous arslocii installment, a place where we have bought a slice of what these days passes for eternity. Woodstock – as congenial, insanely sane and out-of-touch in-touch a spot as one will find on this hard and contentious Earth – has as its center the village green. It sits at the point where Route 212 changes its name from Tinker Street to Mill Hill Road, and, at the same time, changes its direction, as if it were a long iron bar that has been fired red-hot in its middle and expertly but lazily hand-bent by the town smithy into a loosely curving L. (Appropriately, it is at that very spot that a little drizzle of a byway called Old Forge Road shoots off the main drag.)

The village green: It is here that demonstrators come to espouse their causes or rail against others’; it is here that on Sundays, in good weather, you can find the drum circle, which ought to be an eye-rolling bit of ‘60s retro silliness but which instead turns out to be a stirring bit of participatory rhythmic fun; it is here where one is bound to spy the age-indefinite, gnomish figure of Father Woodstock standing at the corner beside his message-and-photo festooned bicycle/cart, offering up a gnarly-fingered peace sign to all passing cars, and accompanied by his disturbingly bearded and similarly weathered and anachronistic female companion. Woodstock may be a place of polar opposites, but the center – the village green – does hold.

But it is no more than 20 feet from this center that the town’s true heart beats. It is the Garden Cafe on the Green, a restaurant that is more than a restaurant. And why it is the heart of things has less to do with chef Pam Brown’s wondrous food – there is none better in town, and, as health-conscious eateries go, possibly none better anywhere – as it does the community that has made this tiny establishment a second home, and the warmth and energy that glows within even as the village green’s activities thrum just beyond the windows. Like theater, there is here exemplified the difference between movement and action: the former, represented by the village green, motivates bodies through space on a stage, in a superficial though eye-pleasing pageant; the latter, action, is based on, explains and alters character and lives, in which things happen because they are meant to happen, cannot happen any other way. Not to put too ponderous a point on it: the village green is about liveliness, the Garden Cafe is about life.

It just feels good … no, it feels right to be in the Garden Cafe, and that is why people, occasionally lines of them, are drawn to it, over and over, and for the first time. It is more than some alternative-lifestyle “Cheers” – that place where everybody knows your name. The Garden Cafe is a magnet: of thinkers, of artists, of the most interesting people who dwell in or visit this most interesting town. Look through the window anytime, and you will see people you might want to join, or at least eavesdrop on. Look through the window during the week of the Woodstock Film Festival and you’ll see some very big names there – not because it is the place to be but because it is the place where you can be you. Not trendy – essential. Not a restaurant, or not just a restaurant – a gathering. Not cynically designed to be this, but overtaken by its honesty to be nothing less. Go in, take a spot at a table, or at the counter or outside in the garden, and you’ll see.

If you are lucky, there is a place like this in your town. Or you will find one – that vibrates on your wavelength, that beats to your beat – in the town where you are supposed to be. And you will know you are supposed to be in that town because of this spot. It is part of the magic of finding yourself while you believe you are looking for something else.

Heart. Home. Placeness. Peace.

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