“Do you want an adventure? It will involve a motorcycle ride and a 40-part motet. Meet me at 11.45am on Baltic Avenue in Brooklyn.”
I recognize the neighborhood as soon as I look up directions–it’s where I used to work, during the season of life in New York City when I held three jobs simultaneously. It was in the same borough as where I lived, but it took just as long to get there as it did to get to my other job in Harlem.
As we pull away from his house and round the corner onto Henry Street, I think I recognize the church which I used to reorient myself on my way to babysit for the Rockette I met at church. (Amy, you were cool and I’m sorry we didn’t keep in touch.) It’s well past noon, but you the heavy fog of brunch hangs the air. Sunday mornings in New York City last for eons. I have to think hard to remember what time I got up this morning, what I ate for breakfast, where I was just before here. I don’t know if that’s the effect of New York City, or the effect of riding on the back of a motorcycle through it.
This is only my third time riding a motorcycle, and I’m realizing that while agreeing to ride it might not be dumb, my cavalier attitude about it was.
The last time I rode was on a big Harley Davidson cruiser, easing down the Natchez Trace. I didn’t even have to hold on. (Neither, incidentally, did the driver.)
This bike is a 1980 ironclad engine Harley, with a saddle about the width of a magazine that sort of slopes downward in back. It cuts right up into my tailbone and my hip flexors flare unforgivingly each time I take advantage of a sudden stop (of which, in New York City traffic, there are many) to scoot forward. I hope that I’m not being an annoying passenger–he said to hold onto his hips, but my hands are fully interlocked around his rib cage by the time we get to the Manhattan Bridge. (The Brooklyn Bridge, regrettably, was closed.)
It’s a beautiful day at the end of October. This is the time of year I remember best, because it’s the time of year when I was happiest in New York, because it’s the time of year when I knew I was about to leave. Just a couple days shy, in fact, of the exact five-year anniversary of my departure. So it’s likely that on this day in 2008 I was seeing the exact same things–the banners of laundry lines strung across the rooftops in Chinatown, the inner sides of windows in buildings that are cramped right up close against the offramp onto Bowery. These are things you can only see from the Manhattan Bridge, and they remain one of the few things about New York that I find myself remembering fondly.
The other bike riding with us is a red BMW crotch rocket. This is driven by Chris’ friend Matias, another Brooklyn entrepreneur of quiet explosive success, and his mother, Estela, who is visiting from Argentina. She looks like Anjelica Huston and her laugh sparkles like champagne. Matias proudly says it was she who taught him to ride a motorcycle.
She perches on the back like a trained assassin. I examine her posture as Matias pulls up alongside Chris. We are inching along Houston Street, backed up in traffic. “Sometimes,” Chris says, with a rueful shake of his head, “isn’t New York just ridiculous?”
It’s only been about ten minutes riding; already my body feels like something between shaken baby syndrome and a spinal tap. When I hear Chris shout to Matias that it’s somewhere up around 191st Street, almost at the end of the island, I will my brain to go somewhere else.
Those who insist (like the late-as-of-today Lou Reed) that controlled substances are necessary for the body forgetfulness that creativity demands ought to take up motorcycling, instead. And not as drivers, but as passengers…there should be no sense of control involved, for optimal free association to take place. I remember a brilliant blog post, never written, that composed itself in my mind during that hour that we took through the Franklin hills to Puckett’s Grocery to the Loveless Café. I reckon your mind just has to go somewhere, out of necessity, when you’re hovering perilously over a convulsive exhaust pipe with nothing between you and the asphalt but a pair of ill-fitting jeans (I left my comfortable ones at Diane’s), while the legendarily irate drivers of New York City swarm like piranhas at your knees.
We pass the edge of the Meatpacking district, the Hustlers’ Club, Chelsea Piers, Morningside Park. Hoboken and the Hudson look so placid and content over there; I think they are making me feel better, so I keep my face to the left. A three-sailed boat tilts elegantly past.
Fuck you, New York, I think. You are ridiculous, and I don’t have to care.
We arrive at the Cloisters, the one place I never went during those final days when I walked the entire length and breadth of the island. (I also never went to Staten Island, but I hear that doesn’t count.) I dismount the Harley–I can’t actually tell you how, it feels as if someone lifted me off. My knees are shaking and my ass is a ring of fire. Estela takes out a pack of Dunhills and offers me one, and seems surprised when I say yes, please.
Chris tells us that it was built by the Rockefellers as a sort of place of worship, then donated to the Metropolitan Museum, who have curated it exclusively with religious art. I’m feeling so grateful for my life that I don’t balk at the $25 “suggested donation.” The unclassy life is not worth living, especially in the Cloisters.
We wander around, looking at the unicorn tapestries and the 15th century architectural details sourced from Navarre and Spain. There’s music coming from down the hall…I only thought I could hear it, at first, but stepping only a pace closer it becomes much clearer. There were people crowded round the doors of the Fuentidueña Chapel; the people inside were standing at intervals like a constellation, as if they’d been posed in place by a director. My head turned this way and that, as individual voices launched out, one after another. I thought they were coming from people in the room. But everyone was still, even their faces, as if cast in wax.
I first heard polyphonic choral music just before going to St. John’s. I didn’t know what it was called–only that it hurt inside in two ways at once, like watching a child laugh and like the kind of scream when you get an overdue notice on your rent on the same day as your boyfriend breaks up with you. It’s how I felt on Moonstone Beach in Big Sur, or driving Highway 89 through Vermont.
Singing that music at St. John’s was entirely a surprise to me–I didn’t know that was part of the program (as we call it). But it was like a drug, that first year. Learning to make those sounds. I remember listening to “Spem in Alium” while sitting in the bathtub, while going to sleep, while writhing in shame over crushes gone sour. It took me out of my body, out of even my head; it heightened every feeling, good or bad, into something more like a prayer.
The music is coming from 40 stem speakers placed in an oval around the room. It’s an installation by Janet Cardiff, called “The Forty-Part Motet.” (A friend of Chris’ was the sound engineer for the piece’s New York City exhibition, first at P.S. 1 and now here.) In 2001, Ms. Cardiff individually recorded each person’s voice in a performance by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir. The speakers are configured so that if you stand right in the middle, the chorus is perfectly balanced…wherever else you stand, you’ll get one voice directly in your ear and another bouncing off the stone apse from across the room.
People of all ages and nationalities and appearances are constellated in the room. A child is curled on her mother’s lap; together, they look like a winter-coated Pietà. A young man is staring at the place where the floor and walls meet. An older man, red-faced and whiskered, has his eyes squinted shut, a furrow between them deepening.
One time I played “Spem in Alium” for a boy I liked. Just about delirious with happiness, I told him to listen, and he said, “It’s definitely relaxing?” He was asleep within a few minutes. The embarrassment I felt ever since for playing Renaissance polyphony as make-out music is more than comforted by the sight of people’s faces here. I feel as if they’re all my friends.
The media who have covered the installation–the New Yorker, the Times, Studio 360–agree with me on the penetrative quality of this installation. They report that people often leave the chapel weeping, disoriented, unwilling to speak for several minutes. Reviewers, and even the artist herself, describe what happens there as “a physical relationship with the music.” It feels as though the individual voices are piercing me, like the swords in the Immaculate Heart, from points all around, and that they transfix me to the place where I stand. It’s hard to think; it’s hard to check my face for composure. Somehow, I don’t know how, I move until I find a speaker that transmits the voice of a rigorous bass. His part feels like a clinging to a warm rock in a rushing tide. Across the room, two childish voices sing the same soprano part, and I feel it washing like a breeze over the crown of my head.
The parts fray away, for a moment there is silence, then the voices all gather in one wavefront, and I want, so gladly, to curl up in a ball on the floor and let them drown me.
We take the BQE down through Washington Heights and Queens and Long Island City. Just before the toll booth, a car cuts us off and, for the first time, I feel Chris’ shoulders tense up. The current of anxiety runs through the entire bike and my mind just floats away.
I wonder how it would feel, to get hit by one or another of these cars. I picture a beat-up Civic jumping the gun at an intersection, as we plow through the dying breath of a yellow light (as we have done several times, in fact). We go over a nasty pothole and I think it would probably be something like that, like getting plugged in the back, or the side, or the knee, or the neck, with a jackhammer, the current of rude force resonating for long moments before the actual pain begins.
Atop the warehouses and the parking lots full of vans, the west-facing planes of Manhattan’s skyline are pink like the inner skin of a seashell. I grudgingly reflect that if you know how to work it, this could be a beautiful place to live and work.
I expected too much of New York, when I moved here. Maybe I’d have found it easier if I was rebelling against someone, or seeking anonymity, or even seeking to fit in with a group that I hadn’t been able to find elsewhere. But I came here to stand out, to make a success. If everyone in the big city look at me and say, “Ain’t that somethin’?” then all the people I knew in littler places would be forced to agree.
We end up on Metropolitan Avenue. Estela takes out another Dunhill, with a smiling mutter: “Tengo culo cuadrado.” I agree before I even translate it to myself. The guys scuffle exuberantly over more restaurant options and we end up at Briskettown, the Brooklyn outpost of Delaney Barbecue. Chris shakes the hand of the guy behind the bar as we walk in. Turns out he’s the founder; turns out Chris is part-owner. When they first met, Crazy Dan was about to leave town for Austin to study under the pitmasters there. He came back with a 18-foot smoker (that had been seasoned by some of the legends there) and a cord of Texas post oak, and started smoking brisket in an alley behind his house. Chris hooked him up with investments, a friend who bakes the world’s greatest pie, and a designer who built the iconic neon light at the back of the restaurant for $500.
“Someone came in here, saw the sign, and wanted the guy’s name,” Chris tells us. “He ended up getting one built that hangs in his entry way. It says ‘Fuck it–we’re moving to New York.'”
I wasn’t raised in the South, but I have been schooled in recognizing its ersatz forms that hide behind the sauce. The waiter spreads brown paper on our table and sets a tray down in the middle. There are forks, but no plates. Neither are there proper beer glasses, which Estela takes in admirable stride. I harbor some resentment about their not having sweet potato fries (unjustifiably–this is, after all, Texas-style), but I immediately forget it when I bite into the brisket. It hit me as powerfully as the pothole did, jolting with rude force up from my mouth and scattering a melting rain of effusive contentment throughout my brain.
I suddenly feel as if I love these people more than anybody and that we should all fall asleep around a bonfire together.
I’ve read that this is what happens–to the brain, I mean–when we consume quality fat. Matias concurs–the body sends the same signals, whether we eat or drink, to reaffirm its gratitude for the kindness we’ve done it. This is what Chris probably meant, earlier in the day, when he said that food, at its best, is a backdrop to another kind of experience.
As we swing past the playground on Kent Street, where mothers in heavy black shoes and long skirts pushing their kids on swings to make telegraphic signals out of the afternoon light, Chris lifts a hand to point at the skyline. We’re level with it, now, and only the southernmost point is within eye’s reach…its bulk looks a little foolish wearing the blush of sunset. We get back onto the BQE and drive straight into it–the sunset, I mean–and for the first time all day, I don’t feel even a little bit afraid. Fear is just the exhaust as life rushes you toward days, or sometimes only moments, like this one.
New York City can still suck it. But there’s always a good reason to come back.