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Recapturing the Past

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The photograph above, André Kertész's New York, 1954, may be the only photograph reprinted in Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment that I recognized, immediately, as a scene, and not as a photograph that I had seen before. The figure at the right, casting a long, wintry shadow, is standing on the John Finley Walk, by the East River. The massive building in the distance is New York Hospital, still standing but obscured from this vantage by many intervening taller buildings. The building beyond the nearer figure's head is 1 East End Avenue, a grand old co-op. I was puzzled by the picture, because 1 East End seemed to be standing where the highway ought to be. I was forgetting the curvature of the island at this point.

An attentive viewer of New York, 1954 who hadn't stood on this spot might have been greatly puzzled by the span stretching over the walk, parallel to the Queensborough Bridge in the distance. What is it part of? Another bridge, perhaps? An elevated subway line? And while it is easy to tell that the East River runs far below the walkway, it is not at all clear why that should be so. Kertész must have been tickled by the mildly inexplicable elements of his image. He could have cleared things up a bit by entitling the picture, Beneath the Brearley School Playground, 1954. For that's what the span is: one of four roughly equal sides of a rectangular level, reachable from the second floor of the Brearley School (girls K-12; Kathleen went to high school here), and still in use, I suppose, even though Brearley shares a nearby field house.

In 1954, the Walk was rather new. Now it's over fifty years old, and you can tell that from my photograph, taken yesterday in very different weather.

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Those delicate "x"s have been obscured by some sort of bunting, and the view is further spoiled by a works site farther along the walk, where an adjacent building is having its balconies coped with metal, to prevent chips of cement from falling upon innocent heads.

It was my job yesterday to buy caviar for New Year's Eve at Agata & Valentina, where the quality is good and the prices are low - well, low enough for this neighborhood. I had already lugged a big shopping bag of stuff home from Eli's. The sensible thing would have been to walk along 79th Street from Third Avenue to First, where Agata is, but I didn't like the thought of lugging a big Eli's shopping bag through Agata & Valentina where all I would be buying would be tiny tins of caviar. I prefer to deceive each store's personnel into thinking that I'm loyal to its establishment. Don't I wish I could be, too. But there are lots of things that one store sells that the other doesn't. For example, frozen croissants and hors d'oeuvres. Like everything at Eli's, they're a bit overpriced, but they're also fantastic. Although I can't get M le Neveu to get beyond the pigs-in-blankets. Ms NOLA always takes pity on him and lets him have hers; it's a free country. With luck, or at least scheduled flights flying on schedule, the four of us will be together to ring in the New Year.

So I brought home the big bag of Eli's stuff - cheeses, crackers, San Francisco salamis, and a chicken pot pie for dinner tonight - and put everything away. Setting out again, I was still in the driveway when I remembered that I wanted to see what goes into Lobster Newburg, which I'm thinking of fixing for New Year's Eve. On my way back upstairs, I remembered, too, that I wanted to see Kertész's view for myself. I grabbed the camera for good measure.

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Here is the Brearley School, sort of. It's obviously a reflection of the building in a puddle, flipped both ways. I hope it doesn't make you seasick. Perhaps Kathleen will post a comment, sharing her first-day feeling of going to a women's prison; my photograph captures something of that, I think.

You can see the playground's upper fencing at the lower left. I apologise for all the brown dog-bones of cheap repaving fixes. Like most park walks in New York, this one is "tiled" with asphalt hexagons. They wear out pretty quickly. If I were Geoff Dyer, I might call attention to the brown spot that appears to be an illuminated lamppost. Sitting down to write about The Ongoing Moment, I saw right away that I must first re-read Susan Sontag's On Photography, paying closer attention this time. One of Sontag's six chapters is devoted to the impact of Surrealism upon photography, which, I now see, was enormous. Sadly, Surrealism has always been, for me, a matter of paintings by de Chirico and Magritte, and the sliced eye in Un chien andalou. I have never taken it very seriously. I thought that it intended not to be taken seriously, but in that I was incorrect.

Click here to see the original image, full-size.

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Comments

Please, please, please let everything run smoothly tomorrow night. From the flight to the luggage claim to the A train to the Upper East Side. Cannot wait to ring in the new year together!

As a fellow Brearley alum - I have to say, I don't think it really felt like prison while we there - BUT returning there, many years later, I certain thought the exterior looked a bit like a correctional institution -- then again, some of us needed more corrction than others!

and as you can see - Brearley never taught us to type...


Oh, those Brearley girls (I know quite a few, actually!)...

Happy 2006 to all those grand Upper East Siders at Portico from the cosy Village.

I am a kottke.org micropatron

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