Thursday, August 18, 2005


the best piece of art i've seen all year

On the way home I remembered my racism. Then I thought of the best piece of art I've seen all year.

The guards on the platform are supposed to be doing random spot checks. Today there were no guards. I had packages: I'd just bought a network router at J&R. The router box is roughly bomb-sized. It is the Belkin brand, a top of the line piece, the best router you can get. This I was assured by the sales clerk, a kid with spectacles and a heavy Middle Eastern accent. I liked him. He had a scraggly moustache and beard and a shaved head, and he smiled a lot as he answered my inane questions. And he admitted that he didn't know certain things about computers. That's a rarity at J&R.

This router box is a trapezoidal prism, the most dangerous shape you can find. A trapezoidal prism juts out at unpredictable angles, exploding at the viewer. I imagine that the trapezoidal prism appeals to bomb manufacturers at those moments when they are imagining possible shapes for the newest and best bombs. This is all guesswork, now; I have never seen a bomb up close at the World Trade Center station. If I had, I would not be able to write about it. To write about it, I would need a network router powerful enough to tap into my wireless service in the time between observation and the flash. But I wouldn't ask my new friend at J&R about that. I would not want him to think I considered him a terrorist.

Walking toward the steps to the area some call Ground Zero, and others call a PATH station stop, I was approached by a man in a turban.

"This is where there were towers?" he asked me with a smile.

I pointed to the footprints. He laughed. He asked me again if this was where the buildings had fallen. I assured him it was. He thanked me, and rejoined his family on the stairway.

Tourists come here from all over the world. They pose at the fence in front of the hole that Osama made. It is treated like a Washington Monument in reverse: a sightseeing target defined by absence. They snap photographs. It is hard to imagine that anything meaningful will come out of these shoots, even for the people that were there. My experience of digital cameras suggests that the panoramic sweep necessary to capture the immensity of the scene requires a heretofore uncharted number of megapixels. In fact, I would be willing to hypothesize that there is no technological advancement on the horizon that would be high-definition enough, and this may be the hole in Moore's Law that engineers are always searching for. Here, the opinions of the staff at J&R might come in handy. They could offer helpful advice to the tourists, matching them with the digital camera most compatible with the operating system.

The best piece of art I've seen all year is not a photograph. The best piece of art hangs in the rotunda of the Brennan Courthouse as part of the current exhibition there. It is a map of the New York City subway system, painted in oils. The piece is about the size of the fold-outs available at the token booths. The artist has taken great care to render all of the colors exactly as they appear on the official version. In fact, the painting replicates the subway map so well that at first glance, you might be fooled into thinking you're looking at a poster. However, one thing is different: all the text has been painted in Arabic.

Because we do not read Arabic, there is no way for us to know what the writing on the painting means. We can take it on faith that the stops are named as they normally are: Vernon-Jackson and Borough Hall, Times Square, Hoyt-Schermerhorn, the rest of the liturgy. We can assume that the scrawl at the bottom concerns service changes and transfers, and skipped stations on off-peak hours. But perhaps that's not what the painting says at all. Perhaps it says something else.

The painter is clever. He knows his audience. Many of the workers at the Brennan Courthouse take the train every day, and do so with the casual trepidation we've all become accustomed to. They see the guards in the terminals with rifles. They've heard the news from London. A viewer who does not read Arabic cannot be comfortable with this painting: it seems to contain secret messages, inscrutable plans, an unauthorized reproduction, an official document perverted to malicious use. And yet we know that it's far more likely that we're looking at a public service announcement: a reproduction of a benevolent translation meant to help Arab immigrants negotiate the American maze.

I use the World Trade Center PATH Train station whenever I can. There have been many times when it would have been more logical to take the Sixth Avenue line into the city. But I don't bother with it; in fact, I have come to resent the Sixth Avenue line. My preferred interface with Manhattan has become the hole, and when I enter the city by other methods, I feel cheated of excitement. The terminal seems like the place where the city is most alive. I fear that if I move away from this line, the island will slip away from me, and I will be left with movie images, powdery newsreels, hand-me-down stories of Dorothy Parker and Joe DiMaggio.

At night, the hole Osama made is lit up like a television advertisement. We are satisfied that ours are top-quality floodlights. New York City's biggest war wound demands two gigantic megapixels worth of state-of-the-art illumination. Tourists peer through the fences, pointing and puttering around the platform as if they are marking time, waiting for the show to begin. A man in a turban grins as he asks me about the buildings that were here. If I no longer go home this way, what will I forget about myself?

Very well stated.
I haven't seen the subway map at Brennan, but I don't really need to, I get it.
And I totally agree about using the WTC PATH station whenever possible, and I miss that they covered up some of the walls between the train and the view that used to be when the train left the station, and you got that whole "Go Round the Ground Zero in a Moving Train" perspective.
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