10 October 2007

If I Lived on this street....

.... I would have to smile every time I looked up at the building with these wonderful creatures:

But would I notice them every day? How many times have I walked by these and not noticed them? Do they tell me the true character of the building? Do they reveal or mask the likely lives of those that live in the building or those who pass by each day?

A few weeks ago I had a car service pick me up at the airport. It was the same service I use frequently. Yet, had I never used them before, my impression would have been that they weren't very good. The driver was late. He went to the wrong terminal. He complained. He drove without his seatbelt, the alarm buzzing seeming only to irritate me. It was the dirtiest limo I have ever been in. I told him to take the Queensboro to Westside Highway to Canal and the Holland Tunnel. He insisted he take the BQE to the Midtown Tunnel, across Midtown to the Lincoln. I rolled my eyes as we merged onto the BQE and I spied the worse mid-morning traffic jam I'd ever seen in New York.

But, he did know to get off the expressway and take city streets to get me to my destination on time. I saw a part of Queens I probably never would have been in. "What a different city than Manhattan" I thought. Later, after I arrived at my meeting (on time!) I marveled at his bizarre brilliance in taking a most unlikely route: through several sidestreets in Queens to 59th Street Bridge (for all of you readers over 45 who remember the tune....hum a few bars of the Simon & Garfunkle song and feel groovy), north a few blocks, then east to FDR, past drab Lower East side buildings and past the skyscrapers in the Financial District, south to the very end of Lower Manhattan, through funky Tribeca, and then north on West Side Canal and the Holland. The quickest LAG to NJ trip I've ever made! Sometimes the quickest route is not a straight line between two points.

So what do apartment-building statues that look like the offspring of gargoyles on the Gothic-styled cathedral around the corner, an old song from the 60's, and a dirty car/effective driver have to do with anything other than they all made me smile in a small way on the same day? And what does this have to do with books? (Yes, books... this is a quasi-book blog so this lazy blogger should talk about them sometime!) Well, they all seemed to fit with the book I was reading the same week -- Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.

One gives nothing away to say that Invisible Cities is about Marco Polo explaining cities he has visited to Kubla Kahn. And one doesn't divulge a plot spoiler by saying that all of the cities described are the same place. Kubla Kahn knows Marco's deceit, and he plays along with the game, even describing his own cities, pointing out the obvious features that Marco has overlooked. It doesn't even matter that the city is Venice -- Venice, Italy, or Venice, California, or Venice, Florida, or some Venice that only exists in your mind. Or that it is in the 11th century, or the 16th, or some century yet to come.

The chapter titles bemuse and bewilder: "Cities and Memory", "Cities and Desire", "Cities and Signs". "Thin Cities". "Trading Cities". "Cities and Names". "Cities and Eyes". "Cities and the Dead". "Cities and the Sky". "Hidden cities". "Continuous cities" . . . . All describe a city that once existed, or never existed, or exists now and will exist in the future.

I can't tell you any more about the book without it sounding like a dry compendium of cities and their social ills. I can only tell you that it is a truthful description of a place that is familiar and people you know even if you've never met them. I can only tell you that it should bring a smile to your face or a tear to your eye. It might make you think that you'll pay closer attention to your city the next time you take a walk, or drive, or hurry somewhere. It might make you look for the city that was and the city that is and the city that might be, if only on maps in your imagination.


Emily Barton said...

Oh yes, a smile to your face and a tear to your eye is right. It was one of those books that was 100% satisfying, wasn't it? So then I immediately went and lent it to a friend who didn't like it (huh!). Are those gargoyles somewhere near St. John the Divine? I love them!

Cam said...

Hi Emily. I almost wrote in my post "Emily -- do you recognize these?" since they are right around the corner from the Hungarian Pastry Cafe (which I have now been to several times thanks to the recommendatoin in your blog!), and the Cathedral of St John the Divine. They're on a building on Cathedral Parkway, about half way between B'way and Amersterdam.

And, yes, I did find this book 100% satisfying, but I can see how it isn't for everybody. I considered recommending this for my book club, but decided that it would be continuing my reputation in that group for always selecting the wrong books. I should write a post on that -- some of the books I've loved, they've hated!

Becky said...

I can't comment on the Calvino, since I haven't read it. But from having lived in Oxford I can say that even if you see gargoyles or other architectural treasures every day, you do continue to notice them. Every now and again they may fade into the background for a while, but then you notice them again and are glad that they are there to brighten your day.

nova said...

I love Invisible Cities. This post makes me want to read it again. Funny, I have a very clear memory of reading that book one night at a table by myself at the Hungarian Pastry Cafe for class the next morning... It was so not what I expected -- it expanded my expectations and opened my eyes. And when I saw your gargoyle pictures I felt sure I've seen those particular gargoyles before. If they're in that neighborhood, maybe I have? Great post! (And surprisingly great driver.)

chris miller said...

Thanks for the shots of the Gargoyles! I wonder if Karl Bitter were somehow involved (he carved a pulpit that's in the sculpture garden at the Met these days)

And yes, the mad driver, the Calvino, and the gargoyles all seem to be of one piece.

Cam said...

Chris -- I don't recall the pulpit in the sculpture garden. It's been a few years since I've been there. The one time I made it to the Met this year, the sculpture garden wasn't one of the places I visited.

Most of the buildings on this street (W 110th) are pre-war era, so the gargolyes might be as well. I wished I had taken more (and better!) photos of these. They are great. I love the drooling man eating his gruel. There are 8 gargolyes along the street. At a quick glance, one would think that there are identical pairs on each side of the entrance, but there are slight differences. For instance, the one reading a book: the 'pair' is holding a pencil posed as if to make a notation. Adds to the charm, I think.