museums

It’s finally spring. All we ever talk about is the weather, spanning from small talk to confessions, the inability to get out of the chair, to love someone, to leave the house, to be kind, to stand up straight. The weather makes the small and the large collapse into one; who we are is incidental and un-specific, as general as the way the sun sits in the sky and the temperature of the air. Below my window, the big tree has finally unfurled white cushioning blossoms and the sun rises earlier than I wake up. It illuminates the water towers and the small fine clouds like pencil drawings, lifting off the page, buoyant. It’s not that there is sunlight, but that the sunlight is different finally - winter sunlight is a joke at your expense, but now the light is offering to help, bringing better news against the onslaught of what you still haven’t finished yet.

I can’t quite explain why we moved to this neighborhood uptown, where none of our friends and no one our age lives, where all the bars are bad if they exist at all and both the restaurants and the residents are dying, where everything carries a fine layer of old dust over it, preserved like the unused formal living room in a grandmother’s house. I know it’s uncool and I know it’s not convenient enough to make up for being uncool. Almost four years ago, when we were looking for apartments, on a whim I brought Thomas uptown, under the river from Brooklyn and past the low tangle below fourteenth street where I had already rebuilt my own history several times, to emerge from the train along the hush and gossip of greens at the border of the park, where the stones feel prehistoric, a promise of unchanging things in a place built on constant transformation. Even as someone who was used to it, who knew what was coming, it still got me, that rushing sense of oh this is the city, the one in the movies, in other, older, famous people’s stories, in unburdened and unknowing tourists’ pronouncements on New York. It’s a museum up here, but sometimes the museum feels more real than the living thing. 

My parents lived here in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and some part of me believed - still believes now - that simply by putting myself where the stories they had told me about their youth took place, I could access the city in those stories, and not just the city but the people and the feelings too. I had understood their recollections as a string of promises. I was too young, when they first started telling me about New York, to understand that stories about the past aren’t promises about the future, that no one can offer guarantees or predictions. It was too late by the time I figured it out; by then somewhere between my muscle and skin, between running blood and sealants, I assumed I was owed the same life they had narrated to me, the exact same youth that they had given as a broad example of youth when really it was only their particular and un-replicable experience. Some part of me still thinks that if I could just put myself in the same neighborhood at the same age, I would have the same friends and the same late nights, the same feelings and triumphs that they promised were so memorable, so spectacular as to incite decades of retelling. 

We get our idea of the future from the past, and we rush toward things, seeking what is already over, propelled by an old reality that has already become impossible. Nobody young lives on the Upper West Side anymore but here I am anyway, in a past decade’s footprints, in the tracks of old stories which have gone invisible, walking past the church where my parents got married, the apartment where they first moved in, the sites of restaurants that no longer exist and bars so far removed I never even saw them, a ghosty and vanished idea of promised adulthood. 

In reality my parents’ years in the city probably weren’t so amazing anyway. Even if I could access them, the truth would be that nothing so spectacular occurred, and that absence is the single thing that makes them important. Two immensely regular, wholly unremarkable people went about a series of regular and unremarkable days and interacted with several other regular and unremarkable people. Now that I have gotten old enough to tell stories about my own past, I understand that my stories offer nothing of any particular magnificence. I tell them in order to feel that I have accumulated something, that I have not merely passed through a succession of rooms but have carried something away, made some monument to which it is possible to return. The stories that seemed so wondrous to me as a kid, that promised a New York so mysterious and abundant, really have little point; the event in most of them is nothing but “one time I was younger than I am now and I want to remember it.” 

We make ourselves seem important in hindsight by situating ourselves up against the legitimately large moments of history, framing our lives as though they took place at same scale as the events to which they were proximal. The 1970s or 1980s in New York have some actual significance, viewed at a distance, full of the shifting tectonic plates of crisis and economics, of a generation losing the languages learned by a previous one and remaking their own. But my parents buying ice cream at the deli on the way home from a Saturday night date and eating it standing up in the kitchen while reading the ink-wet Sunday paper, or my dad and his friends to whom he now sends distant holiday cards every year getting riotously drunk on free booze at a work event and then having to get themselves home from it are so small as to be invisible, disappearing into the thick loom of continuing years, offering no insight. History is something other than ourselves, removed from the small lives it carries forward.

In the good weather, when it’s still warm even after the light turns bruise-colored and the sky fades into the brake-lights of cabs, Thomas and I meet up on the steps of the museum. Our schedules don’t fit with each other; he works a normal job and I don’t, and managing my own time I can almost never construct a nine to five day, instead getting up too early or staying up too late and letting the afternoon rot into a swamp of listless emails. I’m still at work when he isn’t, and he has to be at work when I can choose not to. He is energized by the end of the day when I am just finally getting to work. But in the warm months, in the good light, we can take a few hours and coincide with one another, we can both briefly forgive the day. He brings two coffees to the hollow at the top of the steps, under the grand overhang of the museum’s carved-stone roof, a little ledge built to hold recessed lighting, besides the huge metal doors. It’s not really warm enough for this yet. We should be in shorts and sloppy tank tops, with exposed skin and sweat ticking at the backs of our necks. Instead I’m wearing jeans and a sweater and he’s zipped into a jacket and our iced coffee is more optimistic than natural. But the light breaks against the long avenue by the park, and the procession of paint-vivid cabs promises that all the big green leaves are coming next. The colors are already filling back in, everything that we had given up on returning. 

I came to New York looking for something that had already left, searching for what was already gone and irreparable. But then everything blooms and the sunlight changes, the morning comes sooner, the tree under the window revives and all the greens fill back in and it seems that maybe nothing is lost, that everything comes back to life, that every longed-for story about someone else’s past can be revived and restored, stood up and walked around. In the long purple evenings sitting out at the museum, hidden among the grandeur of this rooted and permanent monument, as though the city were one whole thing formed like a mountain, it seems that all of it adds up and coheres. The thing I was seeking was not the unreachable specificity of an era, or the dull and lost glitter of someone else’s early life, but the small rituals between two people. Perhaps my parents, and most everyone else I’ve ever known, wanted to tell me stories of things that seemed, when related in narrative, utterly unimportant, useless against the stacked demands of story, because what they were trying to recount and capture, to mark as the thing that mattered, was the way people build a life together. In this way we carve familiarity by repetition out of an overwhelming city, out of whatever too-big era we find ourselves part of, the small events by which we ladder our days, the way springtime returns and makes us feel that nothing is ever really going to vanish so completely. 

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