Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The MoMa, a Beggar and my Limp

There’s a woman who walks up and down the streets around West 82nd and Amsterdam Avenue asking people if they’ll give her a dollar. I’d put her around 80. Small, wiry, bent, wispy hair. Brittle bird legs in black tights, but still a follower of fashion in a knit skirt with a tartan pattern, more the kind of skirt you might see on a 20-year-old Asian student. Pale pink lipstick, and a crimson red blouse topped with a cream overcoat despite the muggy August New York heat. I wonder what she does with the money she collects. She doesn’t look like she eats anything, can’t tell if she drinks. She’s sober when she pushes her trolley bag up and down 82nd, asking ‘do you have a dollar for me?’ I don’t give her one.
I keep my dollars for the MoMa. My feet are killing me after walking into the city, but I’m scared of the subway. I did make a weak attempt, but have no idea what they mean by uptown and downtown. Both of these expressions mean the same thing where I come from: Uptown – as in, I’m going up the town to get some shopping. Downtown – as in, I’m going down the town to get some shopping. And there’s no way I’m going to ask a stranger what it means. After all, this is New York, I might get shot.
Oh Jackson...
The first thing I see in the MoMa is a long way from art. It’s an obese ageing woman with poor dress sense and flat shoes. Myself. There I am, my reflection scaring me in long glass window as I make my way over to find Jackson Pollack. And I’m on my own. This is a recipe for becoming depressed and lonely, but it’s New York, a place where people go out of their way to translate anything negative into the positive. For ‘no’, they say ‘I don’t think so’, ‘yes’ is ‘of course’, so  that translates my sad reflection in American speak as something like:  an interesting and rather unique lady of a certain age. That sounds better.
And how emotional this interesting woman gets when she walks right into the massive Jackson Pollock painting. You see, this is the man who made me fall in love with art, not just now as a distraction to my unique self, but towards the end of the last century when I bought a book of poetry, having fallen in love with words. The cover of the book had this amazing painting screaming out at me, all colour and splash and alive and hungry and happy,  it was a picture of how I wanted to say I felt. And somewhere at the back of the book in tiny writing it named the artist as Jackson Pollack. So there I was, touched by beauty on the cover of a second hand poetry book at the age of 17 and now, decades later, standing in front of the real thing, wishing I could have met this genius, if only just to tell him ‘Thank you for creating this and not Microsoft Excel, because this makes so much more sense in my attempt to understand the universe.’ But I will never get to talk to this man who died before I was born. Jackson never got old. Killed in a car crash aged 44.
The Great Art Revolution
I have to keep doing a reality check. Up to a few years ago the thoughts of walking around the MoMa on a Wednesday afternoon seemed about as likely as riding a unicorn through the desert  to a gay ice cream parlour with massage chairs and chilled champagne. So given the difficulty in accepting that this is actually for real and that I’ve made it to New York, there is nothing about it that can possibly be complained about, not the queues, or ‘lines’ as they call them here, not the obnoxious family with the mom picking on the dad and the dad picking on the kids and the kids picking on each other. What the hell made them feel it was a good idea to appear in public is beyond me, unless, of course, they are a live art installation or something. Not even these awful sensible shoes that are still pressing into my bunion and giving me an ever so slight painful and embarrassing limp, no, nothing can take away the excitement of the MoMa NYC. Everything is art. Everything.
Matisse’s dancers spread across another wall, a vibrant spread of color and movement, in one way so simple and yet, this is the art that influenced radical contemporary art of the 20th century. I sit back from it for a while and let it wash over me, trying to absorb it in combination with the flow of people coming and going. It’s loud. The world is alive and free, in the painting and all around me.
A drabness of Art Lovers
The place is full of the greats that have inspired me since my teens. This is the art that made me love art. I feel high. A large group have gathered around a small painting, I stroll over and realise that it’s a Salvador Dali, ‘The Persistence of Memory’, which I had always thought was just called ‘Time’. It is surprisingly small, given that I’m used to seeing massive prints of these dripping clocks. I’m not a Dali fan, I don’t like moustaches and I just don’t get him, but apparently most people visiting this gallery are, and a drabness of art lovers surround the painting, holding up selfie sticks to create hideous snaps alongside the painting – after all, what could be more exciting than seeing a real Dali, other than getting a photo of it with your own face taking up half of the phote. I decide to join the mob and politely ask the gallery attendant standing beside the paining, ‘would you mind taking my photo please?’
‘Sorry Ma’m’, he replies, ‘I’m in uniform’. So that’s me told. I assume him being in uniform means he cannot take a photo, so I manage a selfie of my face, which I don’t particularly like, alongside a painting that I don’t like at all. This is wild, I think, just wild, and limp on without questioning myself as to why I just took a photo that I am never going to post on any social media site.
The Art of the Cloakroom
There’s no way I can take in as many painting as I’d like to, so I watch people dropping their bags at the cloakroom for about half an hour, not sure it this too is art or just a practical necessity. There are  two old dears, I mean ancient old dears serving at the random information desk, and they are most definitely art, no doubt about that. I walk a few blocks, venturing my way down the steps of the subway, and manage to navigate my way back by public transport without being shot or murdered even once.
It’s almost dark, and as I walk along Amsterdam Avenue I see her from behind. She’s still at it, been walking these streets all day. Yes, it’s the same old girl asking people ‘would you give me a dollar’? I’d love to know more about this woman’s story, but I don’t dare approach her. I pass her on the left, and she doesn’t need to ask, because yes, I would give her a dollar, and without much eye contact, I awkwardly slip one into her hand and keep walking.

One of those big red Hop-on/Hop-off buses passes along the street. It’s showing people the highlights of New York. I’m glad not to be on it. The streets of New York are a work of art, and here I am, in the very pulse.




Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Letter to a Boy, who Died aged 18, by Suicide



Dear Tiernan,

I shouldn’t be writing you this letter. I should be hearing about you from my son, your childhood best friend. It should be about some course you are doing, or a plan that you all have to meet up. But that’s all gone. Now there’s just that awful day that you went missing. The day a boy was seen jumping off the bridge. Next time I saw you, you were in a coffin, your body, bashed up by the waves; bruised, broken, dead. The boy who told me ‘be nice to nerds, you’ll be working for them some day.’ The boy who I watched grow up, who I held great faith in. Dead at 18.
And what’s left? The rest of us. Your inconsolable friend, his sister and his mother, travelling back to the West of Ireland for your funeral. Sitting in your home. Going into your bedroom and picking up your things. Yesterday this was your camera, these were your pyjama bottoms, that was your sketchbook. Now they feel strange to the touch. Relicts. And we, who never shut up, are silent. There are no words for our despair. This anger, confusion, grief that we carry, all ends with the fact that you are gone, and we didn’t save you.

Look, I’m sorry if there’s anything I could have done but didn’t. You do remember how I told you that I preferred chatting to kids than adults, right? That kids were more interesting and didn’t judge me the way grown-ups so often did. You were five when we made friends, and by barely nine or ten we were having our chats about god, gays, politics and chocolate. You were a clever kid with the dry wit of an adult, but you were still a kid, and even if I was raging when I caught you gliding down the stairs in a plastic laundry basket, I loved how brave you were. Always. Everything.
Remember the Lego, the Bionicles, the Forts, the Pirate Ships? Cinema visits and the time you kids got the bus into town on your own and came back so late that I almost had the police out? I assumed that all of that was a preparation for decades of adulthood.
And then the pre-teen years of  Vans, Canterbury pants and Game Consoles. You were brilliant. When the real teenage years hit, you were level gazillion at any game you wanted to be. School was a doddle and you could crack codes so well that when the legal department of some American gaming corporation called your home to track down Pakka al Sharu, your mother politely explained that this was the fake ID of a 14 year old boy.
But something happened along the way. Why will I never get to work for you? I agonize over what killed you. Were you too sensitive? Was it society with a heap of expectations that you didn’t want to live up to? Was it because of us liberal parents allowing our kids to think for themselves?
And that medication they gave you. Did it really work? Did your hormones attack your sense of reasoning so badly that you couldn’t see beyond that dark place you had come to? You had your issues; maybe they overwhelmed you, and blinded you to how much you were loved and admired. If only I could have seen it coming. If only, if only.

But understanding it won’t bring you back. Believe me please that I’m not mad with you. Not anymore. Just heartbroken.
 I think about all the fun we had when you guys were kids, and try to accept that all those years of you coming in and out of our house, the shared driving to school, the kids parties, the sleepovers, playground politics and books and games so carefully chosen to help you kids think and learn new skills, that all of it was not about you preparing to be an adult at all, in fact that was it: those were the days of your life.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but sometimes one child raises the whole village, teaching it that this world, the way it is now, cannot save everyone.
If I could go back in time, there is only one thing I would ever want to change. I would slap you alive again and convince you not to jump off that bridge, insist that you give life a chance, believe me that in order to love life you must despise it sometimes. Be that nerd who we all end up working for. 

But that’s not going to happen. So, I guess I’ll do my crying in private and write you sometimes.

Goodbye little friend, I’ll see you another time.


Tiernan Zephaniah Archer.
17.10.1997 - 28.04.2016
R.I.P.