Cooper Chronicles: I.14

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

sara and i were snuggled onto the floor at barnes & noble, drinking juice and reading poetry to each other from books selected at random.  we had picked the most deserted corner of the store — the ancient asian history corner— discarded our winter coats and scarves, and were attempting to shake off the remnants of the descriptive geometry (yes — that class is every bit as bad as it sounds, and worse) and 2-dimensional design (hours of welding in the noisy and messy shop) that still plagued us after a hard night’s work.  the store would be closing soon.

“oh, you’re having a picnic!”  came the enthusiastic voice of a barnes & noble employee.  “looks like fun.  enjoy yourselves.  oh, good, wearing your winter boots [a gibe at my birkenstocks] — gets cold here, you’re gonna need ‘em!”  i smiled politely and turned back to sara.  undaunted, he continued: “i had a brother-in-law that did that.  wore sandals all year round.  called ‘em his winter boots.  yep.  don’t your feet get cold?”  actually, i was fine.  “yeah, but how will you be next month?  ever had a real new york winter?”  no, i had not.  “oooooh, i gotcha.  probably florida, right?”  baltimore, actually … “oh — ” with a dismissive shake of the hand, as if they were practically the same thing — “yeah, i love baltimore.  great little city … “  now we were best friends.

for the next fifteen minutes, sara and i got to hear all about the great partying in ellicott city, the even better partying, rock concerts and “other forms of culture” (his words, not mine) right here, and his free tickets to see Morphine last weekend.  he even showed us his handwritten list of all the bands that were playing this month, and the neat little red checkmarks that he had placed next to each one he had attended.  where did we go to school?  oh, cooper union.  had we heard of peter cooper?  (nooo, peter who?)  i only wish we had had the presence of mind to tell him everything we DID know about peter cooper, from jello and steam engines to presidents and telegraphs and the first night classes in the united states — but instead, we listened to the Elevator Story again.  (when building the Foundation Building of cooper union, peter cooper knew that elevators were going to be invented, so he left shafts for them even though he didn’t know how to build them yet — one round and one square, because he wasn’t sure what shape they would be.  one of each are still there today.)  from there, we moved on to philosophy: “i  believe in a kind of fate — coincidences don’t just happen.  there’s a reason for everything.  if you keep an open mind, good things *should* be happening to you.”  advice to live by, my friends. 

suddenly came the voice over the intercom: “attention, barnes & noble shoppers, the time is now 11:55.  the store will be closing in five minutes … “  D’OH! we thought silently as we “heh-heh”-ed our way to the door. we hadn’t gotten to read any more of keats or that funny woman poet who wrote about tinfoil collections.  but we definitely weren’t thinking about school anymore.

i seem to meet the most interesting personalities when i’m with sara.  on our way back from NY central (one of four art supply stores that we frequent) one day, we encountered another homeless person, begging for change.  today he was a cancer victim.  other days, he was “not a bum, just a guy who needs some help.”  apparently, he had just about had it with the human race as we were walking by, for he was yelling at the general population: “BOY, you people STINK!”

when i stop meeting new yorkers like that, i think it will be time to move again.   

this week has been a whirlwind of culture, work and silliness.  on sunday afternoon, sara and i had an acute attack of cabin fever (after just a few hours of being here!  i think that’s a bad sign.)  tuesday was our class meeting, which was supposed to be individual group conferences; but when the professors discovered that everyone was coming to the same (wrong) conclusion, they decided to address us all at once.  raquel and i left in a cloud of elation, because we were the lone group that had guessed right.  unlike the others, who were trying to continue with the geometry and physics aspects of the tilted cube, we had gone a distinctly different route — extreme abstraction.  it turned out that that was what they wanted.  since we were the lone group of two, we knew that our solution would be different from everyone else’s anyway; now, it just gave us more freedom.  we made a long list of opposites one night and tried to incorporate them into designs that might be impossible to create, but are fun to play with (exactly what they want at this point;  abraham told us that, for now, “we are in the world of imagination.”)  light and shadow, transparent and opaque, round and straight, even fire and water — the crazier, the better.  and we must not forget the bodies — the little disproportionate 12-inch mannequins that will only pose in certain body positions and have to be bound with masking tape to conform to others.  ours have flown, huddled, bent, stretched, scrunched, reached and done countless other things.  i am unbelievably relieved.  *this* is what i thought i was getting into when i went to architecture school — the creativity that would eventually be tempered by practicality of physics and math, but was allowed free reign for a little while.

my friend penley and i went to see james fenton (the british modernist poet) lecture at the Frick collection on tuesday night.  his talk, which had an interesting title (“What is it?  Where Does it Come From?  Why is it There?  Three Questions to Ask Any Work of Art”) was remarkably similar to the dry, flat, slightly stale pieces of melba toast we were served at a diner afterwards. he didn’t have much to say about the subject, but instead delivered a collection of witty comments taken straight from Anglican sermons, and stories about various art collectors throughout the ages.   we went exploring uptown after that, and ended up at a theater, where we paid the manhattan price of 9.00 for a movie — “elizabeth,” the new flick about the Protestant daughter of Henry VIII.  it was disturbing at times, and very dark throughout, but extremely well-done.  the lead actress was great; in movies like that, she has to be or the whole thing flops.  plenty of comic relief, too — i won’t spoil it for you.

wednesday we went to another lecture, this one by the artist eric fischl, whose work (though controversial in some of the subject matter) was fun to look at and even more fun to hear him talk about.  he described in detail the process he went through in a few of the paintings —  how he added and removed characters, changed positions, scenery and props before arriving at the final product.  perhaps it was his egotism that made him such a confident speaker, but i enjoyed listening to him.  penley had talked with some of his students previously, and they described him as completely full of himself, the kind of teacher that wandered around the studio with a cigar and didn’t do much teaching at all.  sounds remarkably like *another* professor i can think of …

at the behest of our drawing professor, a group of us went to visit the special jackson pollock exhibit at the MoMA on friday.  i had never been much impressed with his stuff, but looking at it up close changed everything.  the sheer volume of the thick gobs of paint, enamel and various small objects stuck into the canvas was amazing.  he had prints, too; little doodles that looked just like something any artist would do in a spare moment, and the enjoyment he got out of these less monumental paintings really showed through.  after several hours of hard thinking, though, museum fatigue had set in (or maybe it was just psychological; no sooner had i insisted i wasn’t tired at all, then i began to feel my feet aching and my eyes glazing over.)  so we walked out onto the drizzly streets and went to dinner, then on a whim stopped at the Godiva chocolatier, where we cheerfully endured the slights of the snobby girl behind the counter. later we met beth at juilliard and saw the second half of their opera, “the Italian straw hat,” which was beautifully done — but the sweet melodic voices made it difficult for me to keep my eyes open after a late night doing drawing homework.  somehow i made it onto the subway and back home.

yesterday was spent catching up on sleep and descriptive geometry homework, and the aforementioned excursion to the bookstore.  this morning Archbishop Peter was at church, and there was even more of a tangle of romanian, slovanic, greek and other foreign-sounding phrases than usual.  when i went up to venerate the cross after the service, following the usual “the Lord bless you and keep you,” he asked, “Ça va bien?”  caught completely off-guard, i answered, “très bien, merci,” without even thinking about it, and moved on; then i turned to jeff and said, “i’ve never spoken to him before.  how could he know that i speak french?”  jeff grinned — “maybe he could see it in your face,” he said poetically. 

later i asked the Bishop how he had known my love for the French language, and his answer was almost identical: “i could see it in your eyes,” he said.  “when you’re an old man [here he pointed to himself] you know these things.”  he asked my name, where i went to school, and told me i was welcome here anytime.  Father Gregory’s description of this holy man was completely accurate; he was exactly the sort of wise, gentle man that little old russian ladies would call “an old sweetheart.” 

my “how i learned to drive” paper is begging for attention, and though i’d much rather write to you, i think it’s justified in demanding some help.  in closing, a final anecdote: we were eating at victoria’s diner, the closest thing to east-village ambiance in classy uptown manhattan … right in the middle of our moussaka, there came a loud thump on the window behind me.  i turned to see a huge wet splotch on the glass, where an angry customer had thrown a tomato and was now in the midst of a tirade of expletives, which were directed at the cowering waitress.  he then slammed the door on his way out.  “think he paid?” i wondered aloud.  “probably not,” penley guessed. 

“hey,” he interjected later, after thinking at length, “that would be a really good way to get free dinner.  you could go to a different place every night, enjoy your meal, then throw a fit and leave without paying.”  sounds good to me!