I made up my mind years before I left New York City that I would leave. Back then, I found dark dots of ash on my clothes that seemingly came from nowhere on a certain subway ride into Brooklyn, and a song I listened to over and over again sang of “a western front, where a work might count.” The sudden, inexplicable appearance of those spots, and my equally sudden realization of them, unnerved me, and stuck with me for days as a signal of a tragic event I somehow hadn’t yet noticed. Somewhere in my timeline of New York, my sense of observation and curiosity had been dulled, slowly rocked into a slumber and then a non-existence. The city that was once built of spontaneity and sudden encounter had been sapped, and I didn’t care to be aware of it any longer.
The only place to find solace from this particular drowsy disease for me was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The building itself is an aberration in New York City, an imposing compilation of structures that now measures almost a quarter of a mile long and sprawls over 2 million square feet. Space is not readily available in New York, a fact and a feeling that some adore and others find anxiety-producing. (If you visit, your reaction to that alone might end up being why you stay or leave.) But the Met is wide and long and deep, the original 1888 building swallowed up by additions and expansions, the galleries and vaults home to over 2 million works.
In those halls, New York reminds me of the best of itself, and perhaps the best of myself as well. When I was young, I used to walk through the park every Saturday with a boy (whom I’d later call my first love) to the museum. We thought we were very adult at the time, and that it was a very adult activity. Maybe our maturity was a childish act, but our childlike awe at the Met was not. We would wander between the Impressionist rooms, pausing at the same paintings every week: Van Gogh’s untied peasant shoes, Cézanne’s astonishing fruit, Monet’s sculpted Rouen Cathedral, lit from within. No matter the crowd, we had found a calm.
That calm is hard to sustain in a city like New York, with rents like New York and a transit system like New York and a propensity for the extreme like New York. If you’re lucky, you can catch it for a few blocks at certain hours and on certain days; but at the Met, you can find it in hallways and rooms you didn’t know existed. You can create it on benches in galleries that fill up with tourists for a moment only to empty to silence. You are sharing a room with hundreds, and the hundreds before you, and what they’ve all left behind. History shadows you from room to room, a looming, silent phantom, almost outpacing the present.
Countess Ellen Olenska, the brilliant, non-conformist heroine of Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, complained to Newland Archer that “It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country.” The novel — set in 1870s New York City — makes several jokes at New York’s expense, painting it a lesser version of the grand European cities, with all the pretension, elitism, and societal constructs but none of the elegance or culture. And indeed, the idea for the Metropolitan was birthed in Paris, where an inspired group of Americans thought it would be important to bring art across the ocean.
Similarly, New Yorkers finding themselves in California have mocked the West Coast, casting it as a junkyard, a cultural wasteland. An old friend of mine once declared, “If you tacked down all of the monuments, buildings, parks, and landmarks of historical importance in New York, turned the map upside down and shook it, everything that fell to the bottom would be California.” (Certainly that includes the Met, which would stay put by Central Park.) But this old friend himself was a New York native, born in Forest Hills, Queens, who had later moved to Los Angeles. Not for more space, or for lower rent, or for more quiet, but for freedom. Now, I can see for myself: The West Coast has always been stubborn in its disinterest to adopt New England ideals. There is no desire to become a copy of another city. And how stupid that would be.
But for the tightrope walk between the reminder of the past and the constancy of the present, there is no better place in America to go than the Met. And for that elusive pocket of calm, that shared space that manages to be at once sweetly private and impossibly thick with strangers, there is no place better to go in New York.
Dress by Hesperios