2009.10.1 (my quintessential NY experience)
Today I had what I will begin calling my quintessential New York experience. Well, it will only be quintessential if it comes to something. Then again, it could become significant just because it comes to nothing as well. But before that theoretical development, let me tell you what happened.
Walking out of the glass doors marked "Poussez/Push" of the Alliance Francaise, where I had just begun taking French classes, I turned right down the street. I was planning to take the subway back to campus, back in Greenwich village and go study at the library. I hadn't even thought about lunch at this point - my head was still swimming in French, thinking, "Un mois. Un mois plus tard. C'est vrai. J'avais raison!" etc. I looked down at my phone as I walked (assumedly I was checking the time but I can't remember now) and when I looked up, I was looking across the street at something called the Grolier Club NYC. In my memory, I recalled something that they were supposed to have an exhibit about William Blake, and I decided to investigate.
There were no signs up featuring Blake's name or pictures when I entered. Nevertheless I inquired at the desk, and the women looked confused. Obviously, my memory had failed in some way. She showed me some information for the currently running shows - one about Leipzig University, the other on European symbolism in books or something. Disappointed, I considered taking the information and leaving to come back at some other time. Yet there was an older woman on the way out who exclaimed the wonderful-ness of the Leipzig show and I listened to her intently. Another woman had come into the lobby by then, passed right by the woman on her way out, and said that she was about to go take a tour with the curator of the show right then, and wondered if the woman would like to take it with her. The woman expressed great disappointment, but had to leave (for she was going to her Tai Chi class), and the woman asked me if I was interested in going. I said, yeah, that sounds great. I said, "Man, it's just like I stumbled in here - serendipitous," utilizing that word for the first time in my life. I didn't think too much of her at first, and we went toward the exhibition space and met the professor who would give us the tour. Evidently the woman had contacted him prior to coming here to organize the tour for herself, but I thought there was some long-standing connection there. He was not dismayed at having another person tag along for the tour and he brought us back.
He brought us around to the different window displays, where there was a facsimile copy of Leipzig University's First Edition of Copernicus' De revolutionibus, medieval texts of Aristotle with notes in the margins, a section of the Papyrus Ebers which is the longest and oldest from ancient Egypt around 1600 B.C.E. (in perfect condition - NO HOLES at ALL! - that's over 3000 years old!!!!!!), pages from the world's oldest bible called the Codex Sinaiticus (4th Century C.E.), the Machsor Lipsiae, an adorned Hebrew manuscript from the 14th century AD, and a giant Mongolian Koran, produced in Bagdad in 1306. This shit was all in amazing shape and a testament to Leipzig University's age and long-standing tradition for saving cool shit. Anyway, the professor ended his tour and let us look around a bit more. I went back to look at the astronomy and Aristotle stuff - they had a book that had tables and charts of the Ptolemaic system, but also a kind of pop-up feature that was a working circular wheel within the book that you could use to calculate the different epicycles of planetary orbits in the Ptolemaic system. It was incredible! The first edition Copernicus was fucking signed by fucking Johannes Kepler, who would go on to contribute the elliptical orbits to the Copernican system eliminating the epicycles and cementing Copernicus' work, with a dedicatory poem to the great scientific importance of this book!! I was stunned.
So, after wandering around in awe a bit more, I talked to my tour-mate - the serendipitous guest who had brought me on this jaw-dropping detour. Her name was Eliza, she was originally from _______ (unfortunately it escapes me at the moment, but it was somewhere in South America, which was interesting because I thought perhaps I noticed an accent) and she was just back in New York again after visiting [unknown country in S.A.] and glad to be back. "Not like home exactly," she said. "But like someplace where you want to be, right?" I said. "YES," she said, nodding. Her bright yellow sweater and pink jeans stood out brightly suddenly, as we stood talking in the dimly lit gallery. I told her I was a student at NYU - "at the downtown campus?" she asked - I said, "yes, greenwich village" - "I live about four blocks from there," she said - "cool," I said. She wondered if I'd seen this kind of stuff before, like in other museums or something. I said that I'd been to the Met and seen much of interest there, but I was excited to see more. When I asked her the same, she said yes but she planned to see every museum in the city. I thought that was a fantastic thing, and ecstatically, accidentally, kicked the chair in front of me.
"Well we should exchange email or something, get some coffee sometime," she tossed off. I said, "YEAH," but in my head I was thinking WHAT? (this is all so strange to me, meeting a stranger at random, thinking about some future moment of actually meeting up with the person again, and exchanging numbers to do so. Yet it is the second - count them: 2 times - it has happened to me.) So what did I do? I tore a piece of paper off one of my syllabi for Euro Studies classes, wrote down my name, phone number and email address and gave it to her. I was thinking, well she'll give me her number now. "Jez," she said, referring to the first part of my email address jezbold, "can only your friends call you that?"
"It's a name I picked up in France. I don't introduce myself with it, but yeah, you can call me that if you want."
On the way out of the Grolier club, we discussed how we both loved the feeling of Paris when we were there. We thanked the receptionist and walked out to the street. She had to meet a friend at the subway for lunch, which was apparently the opposite way I was going. I thought, damn, I should ask for her number or something; why didn't I do this earlier?; is it too late? I said, okay, cool. "We definitely be in touch sometime - go to another museum or something." Cool cool, sounds good. "Well, see you!" Okay. I turned and walked away, astonished, still thinking about her bright, curly blonde hair, hanging down onto the yellow sweater, as she walked away from me in her pink jeans.
(If there is an image that this leaves in the mind who wasn't there, it is probably that she was a dumb blonde - this was evidently not true to someone who was there and if this is the prevailing image, then I have failed in my story in that way.)
What makes this a quintessential New York experience: people are all strangers here, and in some ways that makes the city inhospitable and lonely. But people are always open to meeting someone new - if you spend at the very least a week in New York, you will have such the opportunity for such an experience, especially outside of the tourist venues - and it is an exhilarating experience to meet some unique person with even one common interest out of the many millions. It may become quintessential merely because the experience itself (which may come to nothing since I lack the information to pursue it), but in this it could be significant for my whole future of New York City: if you are open to it, you will meet someone when you least expect it. If you are open to it. As I think about it now, success and failure need not be part of this equation (though a success would be a wonderful thing, and I'm excited for my unknown future) - it is simply about this way of life, which is new and wonderful and strange and beautiful and it will be hard to give up if it all continues on like this.
10.1.2009, 11:20 pm