Behold the Power of Travertine

After a flight I will not attempt to describe, I see many taxis. I see long lines of people waiting for taxis. Then I see a wilderness of darkened freeway tunnels, followed by a wildnerness of light-up billboard advertisements. Actually, I sense them rather vaguely as I am propelled at fantastic speeds mixed randomly with bone-jarring full stops by a driver likely to have emigrated recently from a war zone in which human life is fantastically cheap. I tell myself that I am having an Authentic Taxi Experience, and the death rate is probably quite low. In fact, I tell myself this a number of times. Eventually I am hurled bodily from the cab by centrifugal force and have just time to pay my fare before I find myself propelled into a concert of new chamber music flawlessly performed by a string trio.

Welcome to New York.

I like New York. Okay, I don’t exactly *heart* New York, but I like the city. This comes as surprising news; my last memory of New York City comes from the days when cockroaches and other forms of life could afford to live in the East Village. My brother said, “Come, visit! You can sleep under the kitchen table.” At the time their kitchen table was also their living room table, their dining room table, their bedroom table, and their eldest daughter was sleeping in a bureau drawer, so this was a very generous offer.

I spent the fourth of July celebrating our nation’s founding with the Hell’s Angels across the street. Believe me, in those far-off days when I was young, the Hell’s Angels knew how to put on a fireworks display. Police didn’t come near us for days. As my brother said, it was probably the safest neighborhood in New York.
Quentin Crisp lived next door. My brother reported sightings of the Sanctified Queer on his neighborhood rounds with a breathless excitement now reserved for travertine countertops. Meanwhile, the national conciousness seems to have moved on to the Passion of Brittney Spears. As I said, I didn’t expect to like New York. (News Flash: Times Square now looks like Las Vegas, but with musicals.) But then I didn’t expect to like travertine countertops, either.

Which brings me to the topic of travertine. Travertine is, according to our friends at Merriam-Webster, a mineral consisting of a massive usually layered calcium carbonate formed by deposition from spring waters or especially from hot springs. If you’ve ever been to a museum, you’ve probably seen quite a bit of it. Our nation’s founders took seriously the idea that the word Museum means “the house of the Muses.” (who were all women by the way except for their pal Orpheus, who didn’t last long in that environment.) Their interpretation of this sacred mandate involved lots of NeoClassical pillars and white marble.
(Marble: a: limestone that is more or less crystallized by metamorphism, capable of taking a high polish, used especially in architecture and sculpture
b: something (as a piece of sculpture) composed of or made from marble
c: something suggesting marble (as in hardness, coldness, or smoothness) a heart of marble
2 a: the rewards to be won in competition especially for a championship —used in the phrase all the marbles
4 plural : elements of common sense; especially : sanity.

Actually, what most U.S. museums are made of isn’t marble. It’s travertine. Travertine tends to be irregular, less tightly structured than marble and browner in tone, which you might not notice if you didn’t have a lily-white piece handy for comparison. It also costs a lot less, which is why it holds up the walls and smooths the floors of our great museums. You’ll notice I used the word great. This is apparently a controversial idea in some quarters, though the three Secret Spies and approximately fifty thousand fourth-graders sharing the American Museum of Natural History with me on Friday seemed in total agreement. More in a moment on the Travertine Question.

Return with me now to those halcyon days of the New York City of yesteryear. I was a young Nebraskan with breasts, and therefore predictably terrified to be in the East Village. It was the best kind of terror; it opened my eyes and ears to be imprinted for life with the indelible image of my brother (whose alternative lifestyle choices can best be suggested by his position teaching electronic music to students at a small college in New Jersey) with elderly homeless chess players, the Hell’s Angels, Quentin Crisp, gay leathermen, and mothers of all colors with babies in tiny crocheted hats of all colors (99 cents right here) sold by Jamacian immigrants hawking homemade reggae albums, all finding a home in the dirty but rent-controlled streets around Saint Mark’s Place. It was like heaven, with roaches and the occasional mugging.

Since the East Village has become suitable for the heroes of a Harry Potter novel and I have not, I didn’t go back. My brother now lives in Harlem. His family, their softly glowing travertine countertops, and a multinational construction crew all cheerfully inhabit a former crackhouse on 145th Street, which allows me to take the A train (actually, the B train is much less crowded). The travertine apparently didn’t take the A train either. It arrived through a picaresque series of adventures involving a fall from grace with a midtown art dealer, a period of homelessness, a midnight truck raid, rejection by the hoi palloi of Sugar Hill as unfit for the Harlem Renaissance, and finally a welcome home through the intervention of a bohemian artist type and a little old Harlem lady who’d see it all. I think my brother’s countertops are the heroes of a Gordon Merrick novel.

At the School of Visual Arts, the room is packed. Students shift, fidget with pencils, stare at their desks, and sneak sideways looks at us out of the corner of their eyes as we read. After a few terrified moments of being a writer, my brain shifts back into visual arts mode, at which point I realize we’re talking to them and they’re drawing us back. This means they’re interested. Afterward, they ask lots of questions. A Jamacian woman talks articulately about the culture clash between her mother, who is all about language, and herself, whose mind is full of pictures of New York and who cannot find the words. One elbow of a very young man armor-plated with muscle edges slowly upward, like the eye of a snail. When Hilda smiles and calls on him he shakes his head wordlessly, no no no no no. Then he ducks over his desk and begins frantically to draw. A skinny guy in hornrims takes up the space he leaves behind, smiling. I talk about the questions that are answered by my body when I walk into a room. Finally everyone realizes that it’s okay to look at us. For a long moment we all just look at each other. The room becomes breathtakingly still. Afterward, their teacher Ginny MacKenzie tells us she may not know what LGBT means, but she knew it would be a good idea for us to come read to her students, who are artists studying writing. She’s pretty sharp.

Our second reading of the day is at a LGBT center.
Before the reading, I check out the Center, which is the size of a small midwestern town. I ask at the front desk for a good local resturant and a guy with boxer’s stance gives me a complete rundown on every diner in the neighborhood in rapid-fire Brooklyn. Afterward, my mother leans over to me and says, “Here I was, a little old lady sitting on the benches of a beautiful building, surrounded by these tough dykes and these crotchety old men who sounded just like my grandfathers. I felt totally at home.”

At the reading, I see many of the same people I saw in West Hollywood. This gives me pause. Briefly, I wonder if the gay community is actually the jet set after all, or if perhaps Llewyn Maire‘s definition of performance art may apply–something that performance artists do in front of an audience of other performance artists. The room, however, is quite different from a park in West Hollywood, and we get to sit in a pair of camel-colored leather lounge chairs across an end table with individual microphones, a setup which makes me feel as if I am the host of my own talk show. Disguised as a mild-mannered literary activist, Charles Flowers strikes again! Meanwhile, my brother arrives. He is an instant hit with the community.

On the subway home, we’re talking about the challenges of transcending identity politics when my brother fixes me with an expression of sheer bewilderment. “I know what you mean about difference,” he says. “That feeling you describe? That’s exactly how I feel every time I walk into a mall in Paramus. It’s just like suddenly, I’m Zippy the Pinhead.”

Over breakfast I read an interview with country musician Steve Earle, who explained his choice of New York over Nashville by saying, unless I can look out the window and see an interracial same-sex couple, I just don’t feel safe. That night on my way back to my brother’s house in Harlem, I pass a black man standing on his front stoop in a satisfied pose in the soft evening air, wearing a ten-gallon hat.

Meanwhile, up the street at the American Museum of Natural History (suggested donation $8.50-15.00, actual admission free), the new Halls of Biodiversity include this exhibit, surrounded on Friday by a crew of rapt young admirers with notebooks.


Behold the power of travertine.

The well-known Mssrs. M and W tell me the Word for the Day is denegrate:
1 : to attack the reputation of: defame
2 : to deny the importance or validity of: belittle
and whose literal meaning comes from the Latin word denegrare: “to make black.”

Therefore, the Website for the Day will reveal the mysteries of ENDA, and give you the power to make the terms of our future better than those of our past. Go, thou, and do it now.

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2 Comments on “Behold the Power of Travertine”

  1. yoBro Says:

    I didn’t really say your experience is like being at a mall in Paramus, did I?… (Terrorism Expert Says ‘Watch Out for Moose and Squirrel’). I am saving up for a yellow robe with big red polka-dots though!

    Quote of the day: “Through the years, I have learned that there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration” –Steve Martin

  2. woman muscle Says:

    woman muscle…

    I give it a 9. But there’s no need for alarm, since this was intended…

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