Cooper Chronicles: II.1

(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.)

I first came to knowledge of my metamorphosis as I stepped from the train to the platform in Penn Station. I was dressed head to toe in black, carrying a small handbag and wearing sunglasses. My cell phone started to ring, and I tucked my much shorter hair behind my ear to answer it. Suddenly I looked up to see ten other people doing the exact same things, wearing the same things, saying the same things. Hailing cabs and directing the route the driver should take, so they won’t be gypped. Walking briskly to their tiny apartments, checking voicemail and taking off their black shoes to stretch out on their black couches and leaf through the latest issue of Black Book or Wallpaper or Metropolis and see what’s new in the world of style and design.

Maybe it was my summer job working at Tristan & America, a high-end retail chain of slightly overpriced men and women’s clothing that briefs its employees biweekly on the latest fashion trends. I got a 40-percent discount there, and on the last day of my employment was shocked to find myself buying a charcoal gray business suit, something I had needed on many occasions but had never considered actually purchasing before. When I modeled it for Penley later, I found myself spouting off terms like “double vent,” “Chinese collar,” and “raw edged blazer”, all the while wondering vaguely where this knowledge had come from. I actually liked learning about fashion; though it will never be high on my priority list, I found it an interesting exercise to monitor the highly capricious trends and see how quickly each one rose and fell. I learned how easily influenced a certain class of shoppers are by salespeople; if I confided to a well dressed twenty-something that V necks were “fading out” this season, she would replace the three-quarter-sleeve sweater as if it were already dead and smelling up the room. Many of them wanted my opinion. I didn’t see why they would trust it (sometimes above their own!) when my position required me to have another goal besides making them look their best. I was always honest, though, and many times tactfully suggested another style, color or size when it was dreadfully needed.

It could have been the area in which I now live and work: the Lower East Side, right on the border of SoHo with its designer shops, boutiques, galleries and foreign cafes. Every night around nine, I would leave the store and walk home up Broadway, across Prince Street, past the strip of pricey French restaurants and Mulberry Street, which turns into Little Italy in the next few blocks. Most of the shops I passed didn’t even need to be visited; the window displays were enough. One store, which sold designer facial products, was introducing a new cream that contained Vitamin C. In their large, spacious window they placed clear glass tables strewn with small white jars of the cream, and you could see through the tables to the store behind — about thirty times larger than it needed to be, it looked decadent with the wasted space everywhere. Everything glistened chrome, white and transparent in the track lighting. The crowning touch: in the window they hung scores of hollow plastic oranges. There were so many of them, and they set off the rest of the store so strikingly, that I found myself walking in, chatting with the employees and actually thinking about buying the stuff. When I went in for my first interview at Tristan, the assistant manager described the market of New York, more specifically Soho and lower Manhattan, as one of the most competitive in the world. Companies like the Gap give their normally vigorous ad campaigns an extra boost: the Old Navy Stores in Soho and Penn Station are like miniature amusement parks, with drawings, prizes, games and more visual display than can be taken in during one visit. Everywhere are messages to spend, buy, consume. It can get a little tiring, but it’s exciting to watch if you can avoid participating.

Not all aspects of the change have been bad. I find myself more and more interested in the world around me I read the Times almost every day and listen to the news in the mornings when I’m crunching on my granola. I no longer avoid a movie because I think it will be boring; in fact, I go just for that reason, because I know it means it contains something I probably haven’t thought about enough. No, I only avoid movies that are Hollywood. They don’t really interest me, and even a good laugh isn’t worth 10 bucks.

I can’t tell if my initial wonder and awe of this great city is gone; some tell me it is, that I’ve become a bona-fide street-smart New Yorker. If so, my amazement has only given way to a deeper appreciation of the culture that is throbbing and breathing and living all around me.

It’s been a whole year. A year since I moved to New York. I’m writing from the same computer, but a different apartment; instead of Third Avenue, I look out onto Forsyth Street and Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, with its usual cluster of vagabonds sleeping on benches and sidewalks. It’s so nice to be back into the old rhythm of Sunday: church, come home, lunch, and sitting down to tell you, my beloved readers, about my week.

It was good, and bad, to have spent the summer here; it was much more expensive, and I missed being with my family. But the extra time in the city gave me a chance to do things I had been wanting to do since last year when school kicked into high gear: visiting restaurants and museums, catching up on unfinished work from last semester, and watching lots of foreign art films. And I was rid of one more class: Physics, which I flew through with an easy A (something I had previously found impossible at Cooper.) My dad brought up a bike, which makes the trip to school about half as long and enables me to feel safer about coming home late at night. I couldn’t believe that, after six or seven years of absence, my feet remembered exactly what to do when I sat down on the seat. As Penley says, “it’s something you couldn’t forget how to do, even if you wanted to.”

We took a couple of trips to upper Manhattan in the last few weeks, visiting areas we had never been to. Though Penley worked as a guard for the Metropolitan Museum of Art for over a year, he had never visited the other branch of their museum, the Cloisters, located waaaaaaaay up on 190th Street in the middle of Fort Tryon Park. It’s a beautiful area, one in which I would love to live; quiet, safe, and very neighborhoody, with plenty of greenery. Fort Byron is completely open to the public; unlike Central Park, there are no fences or roped-off areas, only carefully-tended herb gardens and flowering plants. The Cloisters, which is dedicated to the art and architecture of medieval Europe, was built with Rockefeller dollars to resemble a Spanish castle. It’s full of sacred statues, stained-glass windows and countless carved objects of wood and ivory, inlaid with gold and precious stone. I’m not sure I approve of the way the statues and crucifixes were taken from their home churches; they look cheap and estranged in a museum case, and since no effort was made to unite the themes  within a certain room, each display is a conglomerate of styles and cultures. Still, the setting is a beautiful place for a museum: stone walls, wooden doors, and gardens that would make Brother Cadfael proud.

Coming home, we took the M4 bus from one end of its route to the other; beginning at 190th Street, it drove through Harlem, across the Park and ended up at Penn Station. The second time there, we got out at 125th and walked through the upper end of the Park, which is delightfully uncultivated. Harlem is much safer now than in pre-Giuliani tines, especially in the area around Columbia University.

On Wednesday, at 7 o’clock in the morning, we once again stood outside the Foundation Building for the annual Desk Run. This time, I was prepared; despite the fact that the members of the Student Council had fixed the competition (handing out “random” numbers to assigned people and allowing some to draw again until they were happy with their numbers) I ended up with a good spot. I had to defend it with ferocity, though, and figured that as long as this barbaric tradition was allowed to continue, the only thing I could do was play along and stake out my territory as if it were the Oklahoma Land Rush.

A couple of days later, Penley and I stopped into the studio just to drop something off; we were shocked to discover a bevy of fourth year students pushing our desks and others’ back so they could have more room. We argued and refused to move, but in the end took pity; apparently, some six or seven upperclassmen had decided not to show up for the desk run, and their classmates were faced with the prospect of sitting on each others’ laps. So we reorganized the whole studio, beginning with the first-year students and ending up all the way at the back, where the inconsiderate no-shows had conspicuously smaller spaces, but spaces nonetheless. In the end, everybody ended up with more space. Surprise: a team of *architecture* students working together can organize space with quite a bit of skill. So why, I wonder, do they pit us as deadly enemies every year, fighting for the same worktables and stools? It was laughable, the way we organized ourselves in a frenzy last year and then, all year long, dealt with the inconveniences of tight space and crowded aisles. Something tells me, though, that no one else took this lesson to heart (at least, no one with power to change anything!) So next year, a whole new crop of first-year students will be trembling outside, fearful of the evil upperclassmen whom they think are out to get them. Sigh.

Classes are barely underway. This year I have calculus, which I was forced to take against my wishes but is looking to be painfully easy. For you math whizzes who are shaking your heads in dismay, this isn’t real calculus but Calculus For Architects, a watered-down version that teaches you just enough to get through the next year of Structures. In addition, it seems I was the only one in my class who didn’t take it in high school by choice; everyone else seems to have stopped at Algebra I., and my teacher has to do problems three, four times before the looks of confusion start to fade. I’m ending up with a lot of reading time on my hands.

My other classes haven’t met yet: Structures I, which is not based on math calculation but on very basic principles of physics and materials; History of Architecture II, which I understand is about three times as boring as last year’s history class; and of course, the monster: Design II. My big-shot professor, Peter Eisenman, is off gallivanting in Europe somewhere, and so the class will not meet until Tuesday, and will not be assigned a problem until the following Monday when he arrives. Along with his design class is a weekly lecture series called Modern Architectural Concepts, which is more philosophy than architecture and requires readings of Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and other key thinkers of the modern age.

I’m actually impatient for the crunch to begin; though I know I will have no sleep, no nutrition and no strength by Christmas, I can’t wait to learn the things that this man knows. Behind his arrogant demeanor lies a true intelligence clearly visible through his writings and work. Eisenman is a philosophical architect, an intellectual. It will be a refreshing change from Abraham’s cursing and volatile personality. Penley put it well: “I know that I will not understand what I learned from Eisenman until years later,” he said. “Right now, all I can do is try to get through it and pick up as much as I can.” 

Today I’m going to see Once Upon A Time in the West: I saw it long ago and wasn’t impressed, but I’m giving it another shot. Then we’re going to the Jewish Museum to see an exhibit on Freud (we tried to go yesterday, and were embarrassed when we remembered it was the Sabbath – duh!) and will probably conclude with an evening run in the park, if it stops raining. I know now to take advantage of these free days.

(Those of you who pay careful attention to detail will notice that along with my maturation process has come a reluctant peace treaty with capital letters. With all the papers I’m going to be writing for Eisenman this year, I think I should get in the habit of writing as the rest of the world does. )