July 17, 2005

Great Looks

At least three-quarters of the railroad passengers from Connecticut to New York on a Saturday morning in the summer are female: they’re going shopping in the city. Groups of girlfriends all the same age, or multigeneration family groups, a grandmother, her daughter, and the daughter’s teenage children, all questing together for the great look, the designer names that will brand them as sophisticated – a perennially frustrated quest, for when they bring their packages back to the suburbs and try on their new purchases, they’ll find that the garments have magically lost the glamor of shop windows and mannequins, instead marking the wearer as coming from exactly where she comes from.

I haven’t lived in New York for more than twenty years, and to me its people now look doughy and gravity-sagged, and no matter what their ethnic skin color, they all have a yellow-gray air about them, the tinge of dealing every day with subway fares and rent increases and the endless search for the next restaurant, the next clothing store, the latest show, the hottest stock. They’re eating big bites of fast food from soggy oversized wrappers; they’re talking loudly across aisles; they’re stretching their arms forward to take telephone photos of themselves. They’re wearing famous brands, and they’ve spent too much on haircuts, eyeglasses, makeup, and accessories that don’t suit their faces. They feel they’ve done it right because they’ve spent too much.

I’m traveling down to see my half-sister L., who’s twenty-one: I moved away from the city just a few months after she was born, and every time we meet it’s a grand reacquaintance. We meet on a corner on upper Lexington Avenue – we hug – I tell her she looks great, which is true, and she returns the compliment. She ran in a five-mile race earlier this morning, and now we’re going to walk all over the Upper East Side, my earliest Manhattan stomping ground. I show her the building I used to live in on 91st Street – this block of five-storey tenements looks almost the same externally as it did a generation ago, but you can bet that behind the old brick walls, the apartments have been upgraded and rewired for the benefit of those who spend two thousand or more per month for their apartments, unlike the $175 that was my rent for a two-bedroom with an airshaft view and a claw-foot bathtub in the kitchen and one 15-amp fuse for the entire apartment and a roach population approximately equal to that in the whole state of Connecticut.

L. and I eat an elegant Chinese lunch and, later, a delicious strudel in a Hungarian pastry shop on Second Avenue. In between, we stroll west to Central Park, through the streets of old New York money, the promised land I dreamed of as a Bronx boy and never got closer to than walking distance. We talk about L.’s experiences among the rich – for, being an orphan, she acquired the financial resources to become the only member of my family ever to attend private schools. We talk about her brother, my half-brother T., a sweet and sensitive twenty-something with developmental difficulties who is thriving in a group home. We talk about marriage and divorce, for L. is living with the boyfriend she’s had through most of college. We talk a little about our family, but not as much as I’d expected. Maybe we’d need more time together for that. And there’s so much in the present to talk about: this city and how it’s changed and how it’s the same, the great overall constant being that there’s something to exclaim about at every step.

I’m trying to think of more things to show L. that belong to my old city. And the perfect destination occurs to me: the Frick Collection, that grand white stone mansion at the corner of Seventieth and Fifth, one of the great small museums of the world. Like many people who don’t know New York well, she’s never heard of it. Along with certain Fifth Avenue churches, it’s one of the oases of peace in midtown. It’s got an atmosphere that seems to me simultaneously illumined and shaded, suffused with the quiet glow of times that knew what real beauty was, and knew how to create it.

In the few exhibit rooms of the mansion’s lower storey, this is what you can see:

-- Bellini’s “St. Francis”
-- two portraits by Titian flanking the Bellini
-- El Greco’s “St. Jerome” on the other side of the room
-- Holbein’s “Oliver Cromwell” and “Sir Thomas More” flanking that
-- Velasquez’ “Philip IV of Spain,” the dotty king gripping a rolled map at the precise angle of an erection and shielding his crotch with a tricorner hat
-- Van Eyck’s “Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor”
--Rembrandt’s “The Polish Ride” and “Portrait of Himself”
-- several Franz Hals portraits bursting with joyous brushwork
-- two or three Van Dyck portraits alive with personality
-- Constable’s “Salisbury Cathedral” and “The White Horse”
-- Whistler’s “Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink” – the only painting in the place that makes me think the moderns had something over the old masters, it’s so fresh and such a perfect balance of the flat decorative and the rounded psychological
-- Goya’s “The Forge”
-- Vermeer’s “Woman and Maid”
-- Millet’s “Woman Sewing by Candlelight”
-- Chardin’s “Lady with Bird-Organ”
Piero della Francesca’s “St. John the Evangelist”
-- and assorted Turners (though not his very greatest), Corots, Lorrains, Gainsboroughs, Cimabues, Breughels, Ruysdaels, and an exhibit of French drawings from Goethe’s collection at Weimar.

And clocks! Intricate table clock mechanisms from the 1500s, gold and ivory and inlaid with painted scenes of the zodiac, putting our digital genius to shame.

And an inner courtyard with a fountain and marble benches where you can sit and remember what you’ve just seen and get ready to walk through it again.

And a living example of contemporary beauty – a classic New York celebrity sighting – an imposingly tall, slim blonde with tied-back hair and rimless glasses and the straightest posture I’ve ever seen on a human being, who turns out to be Nicole Kidman, striding through the museum with a tall gray-haired man. She’s wearing a taupe jeans-style jacket, a knee-length white lace petticoat, and pearl gray Asics walking shoes with violet stripes. Her cheeks are rouged to a high pink and the rest of her face is china white, she looks prim and stiff like someone trying to appear comfortable. Is it really she? We take surreptitious glances – everyone in the place is taking surreptitious glances – as she walks through the rooms just slightly faster than we do. She passes very close; she sits on a courtyard bench just across from our courtyard bench, not making eye contact with anyone. Yes, it is. While obviously not wishing to be approached, she’s not making much of an effort to pass unnoticed: I’d imagined that people like her would sneak into ordinary life with sunglasses on, makeupless faces shadowed by hats, bodies concealed by unstylish anonymous clothes. NK’s wearing a couple of thousand dollars’ worth of fastidiously chosen and coordinated chic. She’s beautiful, yes, but if I hadn’t known who she was, I would have thought of her as an aristocratic young woman who knew how to make the most of her long lean lines and fine features. She looks like a first-year teacher at a school for royal children. She’s not, however, the hottest item in the room, for along with viewing paintings I’ve been glancing at fleshly works of art in these rooms, and some of them have been … well after all, this is Manhattan.

L. and I leave the museum and walk back to her neighborhood. We hug again before I head for the train. It’s been a lovely, really perfect few hours. Have a great rest of the summer, dear sister, a sister I didn’t grow up with, but the only one I have. Choose your life with care and courage. Make the most of your fine mind and complex soul, which I hope I will someday know.