On Frazier and Baldessari and Stories of New York

Before leaving New York I caught an exhibit at the Met that, I’m afraid, closed today: a collection of works by the seminal Los Angeles artist John Baldessari. I love his work because it’s conceptual while also being playful—clever and thought-provoking but not at all pretentious.

One of the ideas he plays with is the complex, and sometimes arbitrary way we make meaning. He puts together found, seemingly unconnected images and inserts barriers between them. One piece juxtaposes a stylized photo of a woman with a nosebleed, and a picture of pelicans. Another takes four plain black and white photos with captions and arranges them in every possible permutation.

Adjacent to one of the photos is this quote, from the artist : “As soon as you put together two things you have a story.”

I loved that. And it seemed a perfect coda to end my time in New York.

Allow me, in my usual circuitous fashion, to explain.

For the most part, my experience with the city on this trip tended toward the negative.

First there was the whole stolen wallet thing. Then the twenty minutes it took me to walk two blocks of midtown logjam following my nausea-tinged bus ride. There was the response from one well-meaning employee to my alarm at paying $6.75 for a child-sized popcorn (“It’s freshly popped.”) And that of the horribly sour moviegoer who I asked whether anyone occupied the adjacent seat holding his coat (turning, in slow-motion, to look at me as though I’d interrupted his private meditation with a high-volume shriek).

Generally, I like to defend against accusations that New Yorkers are, as a breed, mean or cold. We’re just straight-shooters, I say; actually, we tend to be warmer and more personable than other regional types. But then quotidian frustrations like these pile up, make me stammer and curse as I walk down the street, lash out erratically at people I don’t know—generally behave not totally unlike an insane homeless person—and my righteousness dampens.

“I think New York makes me into a crazy person,” I told my brother, J—right after shooting a nasty glare at the guy behind us at the Knicks game who’d just told my father to sit down, before play had even started.

J responded, as he does, perfectly: “Yeah,” he said. “You wouldn’t be the only one.”

For all my ongoing angst toward New York, though, two things remain constant. For one, as you have patiently witnessed, I never tire of writing about the city–along with, obviously, my surrounding, tumultuous, feelings.

For another, my appetite is equally insatiable when it comes to reading about New York. Give me nonfiction relating to food or New York City and watch me become an eighth grade boy at the IMAX-3D premiere of Avatar. These weaknesses surely explain my obsession with the writer Calvin Trillin, whose work I’ve trumpteted before.

And it also explains my burgeoning affection for another longtime New Yorker contributor, Ian Frazier. Right now I’m so taken with his writing that I’ve put off the rest of my epic winter reading list in order to trudge through his 500-page opus on traveling in Siberia.

But before I picked that up I (much more breezily) read his 2005 collection called “Gone to New York.”

One of the most charming essays is one called “Someplace in Queens.” The title comes from Frazier’s spot-on description of how non-residents ubiquitously characterize anything that happens there: you know, he lives/she goes to school/the gallery opened “someplace in Queens.”

Of any borough, Frazier notes, Queens is home to the most ethnic groups. In other words, as he writes, it has “more ethinic diversity than any place its size on earth.”

That fact is extraordinary—and it’s also extraordinary to witness the kinds of interactions, the kind of stories, that it produces.

At the end of the essay, Frazier describes a cemetery that Jews of the Lubavitcher sect visit (“sometimes annoying the black families who live nearby”) because their Grand Rebbe—who some thought was the Messiah—is buried there.

The grave is covered with slips of paper on which worshippers have written personal prayers, requests for the Rebbe. At this, Frazier writes, “There are so many hopes in the world”—a line that moved me to tears. (I will admit: these days not an especially spectacular feat. Transition makes me emotional.)

But the next lines moved me even more: “Just out of the line of sight past the higher wall, 747s descended slowly to Kennedy Airport like local elevators stopping at every floor. Across the street just out of earshot, long-legged girls jumped double-Dutch jump rope, superfast.”

Riding the 4/5 train downtown from the Met bit I found myself inappropriately emotional at the sight of an older, disoriented-looking Russian woman with a choppy haircut and a thick beige hoodie receiving subway directions from a thirty-something black man wearing a fur hunting hat and playing solitaire on his iPhone.

For whatever reason, that moment crystallized why the Baldessari quote and the Frazier essay resonated so deeply–and why it is that I am so reliably moved to read and write about New York. Whatever else you can say about the city, it is a place of infinite combinations—of infinite juxtapositions, of infinite stories.

I don’t know if I want to move back there or if I will ever be able to afford raising kids there–or even if I could stay sane living there.

But I do know that I will always find something not just compelling but hopeful, too, about that.

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