Up here on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum, New York’s skyline juts up like a range of jagged cliffs piercing the dark sullen clouds. The breeze too was picking up and the vine leaves on the pergola were fluttering. The displays of statues were surprising. There were several dinner tables- one had a young woman and a cat coiled asleep under a rock that was really a large discarded mask and another was of a youth asleep over a knight’s effigy in eternal rest.
Inside was a Matisse ‘Sitting Odalisque’ of a young woman dressed perhaps for a harem, staring out at us. Her affect was inscrutable. The colors were out of a dream, pinks, greens, and blues in patterns behind her. She was in pantaloons and a voile blouse.
We had had enough of New York and it was time for other kinds of towns. Peekskill was a curious town. We stopped to browse books at Bruised Apple Bookshop. Then, at Fern Tree African Gift Shop, even more, curious than the town itself we found poor quality earrings, poorly packaged black soaps (Dudu Osun) and dresses in tie-dye and Dutch prints and pretend Kente. There was an Elk Lodge across the road from the Chase Bank and from there we could see the Paramount theatre with its mural. Bruised Apple Bookshop was playing Ali Farka Toure.
In Cold Spring, we ate. The village as self-styled had more antique shops on its high street, than cafes, restaurants or banks put together. We walked down Main Street to the Hudson. The waterfront had a pier, a square that jutted out into the river. Ahead of us was the range of hills and the Hudson Valley itself. The sun was glancing off the flowing river.
Upstate New York: these villages and towns had the feel of living outside time, not merely that time had left them behind but that time no longer existed for them and that if one chose or liked, one could just about live forever, without the encumbrances of electronic devices, and horses and carts might be resurrected with the scythe and the hobnailed boot. There was vertigo that came from free falling without the constraint of minutes and hours. Every moment was measured simply in seconds and these were slow languorous seconds too.
It was the lapping of the waves, and the breeze both jointly lulling me into fancy!
The shops had names like Arts and Antiques, Ellen Hayden Gallery, Bijou Galleries Ltd, Gallery 66NY, Kismet at Caryn’s, Pink Olive and the Gift Hut. The people were unhurried and the workmen too with their bronzed arms and pates, and the women with colorful red trousers, hair lacquered and frozen still and unruffled in the wind. The dark sunglasses were out but there were very few straw hats if any.
We drove to Audubon and parked the car in the 8-car parking lot and then walked down to Indian Brook Falls, a modest fall of clear spring water. From up on Constitution Hill, down in the marsh was a solitary heron.
It was not so strange how here at Sherwood Island Beach there were so many Canada Geese. They’ve only had to fly a few hundred miles due South. But, at Cannon Hill Park in Moseley Birmingham, they would have flown all of 3,00 miles! There were puny sized crabs under the rocks at the waterline and statuesque seagulls and their wonderfully brown patterned juveniles too.
\When I looked across the bay that was shaped like my earlobes, past the flotilla of sailing boats with their elegant white sails, there was Manhattan on the far horizon, just beyond the mist, a dense greyness just there.
It was a cool late summer day –Labour holiday weekend and there were clusters of families round benches and tables with the odd barbecue. The 9/11 memorial stone was placed exactly where the smoke of the Twin Towers was visible on the day and then the memorialized names. What a waste of innocent lives and an unspeakable callousness.
Yesterday at Cold Spring, it was the Hudson and the encircling hills. Later it was Bear Mountain peak and again the Hudson. Up there at Bear Mountain, there were women in traditional dress- probably Pakistani or Bangladeshi, with headscarves, with husbands and families and laughing as they looked down at the Hudson River. It was a Labour Day outing.
The contrast of New York City and suburban Connecticut was like black to mauve, radical without gradual fading out. It was possible to ignore the tragedy that was Houston, the open sore that was Trump. Everything that was against the grain was far away.
At Mianus watershed, the trails lead up and down, alongside oaks and silver birch. There were acorns everywhere. In the undergrowth, moss, iridescent green thrived on fallen and rotten logs and ferns had colonized the spaces left by fallen leaves. Also, there were toadstools and mushrooms.
It had been a gloomy, out of sorts kind of day, all day. The rain had thrown everything including the kitchen sink at the roof. Then surprisingly, a miraculous and angelic sun came out and in between the interlaced leaves and branches, the sun shone like a honey colored lacquer translucent in the air. The river did what all rivers do, it meandered and untwisted. Where it tumbled a few feet, it gurgled like a baby. We heard the few intermittent birdcalls and saw the unidentified yellow, brown or white streak of a bird in flight. It was a cool day, not unlike early autumn in Hebden Bridge up on one Crag or another.
Next day we ordered an Uber taxi to Norwalk and then hired a car. I shall pass over the laughable service from the Indian attendant, his ponderous scrutinizing of my driving license and passport. Let’s just say that he tried to find fault and failed.
The drive from Norwalk to Poet’s Walk was unexceptional. We stopped for lunch at the Red Hook Diner. It is always a surprise to come through a hundred miles of woods, forests, verdant valleys and hills in the distance and then to suddenly come to what amounts to a mediocre town with a string of clapboard houses on either side of the main street.
The Diner was friendly enough and the food portions were American sized, that is to say excessive. I left well over half of mine and so did Jan. Then it was to Poet’s Walk, a 3-mile loop through mown grass, then woodland, stopping at a gazebo, then a viewpoint of the Hudson and the Catskill mountains dimly visible in the mist. It was a muggy day and I was sweating like a pig and breathing like one by the end. Thankfully, it was a mere 3 miles.
Next stop Hudson where there was a revival going on. We stayed at 26 Warren Street in Edwards Room, named for Edward Avedisian, an artist who lived in this house for 30 years or so. We had an elevated 4-poster bed with hints of Buddhism- there was a photo of the Dalai Lama, a magnificent dragon prince, and Hindu paintings over our bedstead. The bedside lamps were huge red lilies on long stalks. Ah, wonderful!
Dinner was at American Barbecue. We sat in the terrace and at long last the rain that had been forecast all day finally arrived but late. We walked up Warren Street looking for a café at 8 pm but strangely they were all closed. This Hudson was proving to be a small town like Leamington Spa for instance. The renovated colonial buildings were elegant, pleasing and desirable. There were properties on the market that made the eyes water- a period detached house in 8 acres for a snip at $ 300K, and you can drive to a station and catch Metro North to NYC. Well I am about to pack up and leave Birmingham England, move to Hudson and commute to NYC. What about that for a career move?
By now the drizzle had turned into proper rain but not yet a torrent. We stopped off at Or, a bar and café. But we were the only two customers. There was the young barman, a DH Lawrence lookalike and a young woman, tall and well proportioned with a tattoo over one elbow. I think she wasn’t a natural blonde, the dark roots were showing through, but it suited her. I had a mug of coffee. A cookie, I hear you say, yes, a cookie, a chocolate chipped cookie no less. A first for me.
It was bedtime.
At breakfast the next morning we met two other guests, Gene, and his partner. Gene was a man in his late 60s and a book illustrator. His parents were involved in developing imaging for breast cancer. His partner was probably in her early 60s. She was a writer of spiritual, self-therapy books. She was the kind of person who holds your hand in both her hands and looks intently into your eyes, earnestly. She was far more optimistic than me and believed in positive psychology, I think. Dementia can be cured by the right diet and attitude and Daniel Ames has good evidence that this approach works- at least 80% of his patients recover! She was insistent that I look him up and I did. He is a controversial American psychiatrist who is obviously financially successful and his empire is built on functional neuroimaging of patients with purported dementia from which he derives he necessary nutritional prescription. Enough said!
I held back as long as I could manage- “ Dementia is a neurodegenerative disease and whatever Daniel Ames might say he couldn’t possibly cure it”. Between J and me we talked about neuroplasticity, the nature and importance of dendritic pruning in early life, and the structural effects of childhood trauma and abuse.
Whilst packing to leave, Gene’s partner knocked on our door to tell us how exceptional we were at explaining things- perhaps we should travel the world teaching. I said, “You’re so kind”. She said, “No, it’s not meant as a compliment, it’s true”. It was a well-meant comment and we took it in that way.
After a brisk walk up Warren Street, admiring the wonderful colonial New England buildings, several were undergoing renovation, we set off for “Olana”, Frederick Church’s estate overlooking an iconic bend on the Hudson River.
The house was set on the summit of a hill commanding what can only be described as the most spectacular view of the Hudson. From the balcony, the Catskills rising up in subtle colour changes bordered by the misty sky and the mighty river itself both lifted and calmed the spirit.
From the parlour, the window was framed as if it were a painting frame and the bend in the river was perfectly set like a changing display of nature for Man’s benefit. What arrogance and confidence.
In his time Church was one of the leading landscape painters in the USA. I can’t say that I responded to his artistic vision except for one or two paintings. His European contemporaries were Cezanne, Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, etc. I think Church was looking backward to the great Italian Masters and well he couldn’t match them for skill or inner vision. But notwithstanding my gripe, Olana was well worth a visit.
Next was Omi, a sculpture garden, like Olana, set in 130 acres of marvelous Connecticut country. There was Tony Tasset’s monumental Deer, the 3 white female busts by Philip Gransman- Victoria 1991-2000, Susanna 1996-99, and Leucantha 1988-93. Also, there was Bachler’s Walking Figure.
It was a miserable wet day and it took resolve to walk through 50 acres to see the figures round the lake. By the end my shoes were sodden. I was also famished- what can one expect given that 6 hours after a light breakfast, blood sugar levels were liable to drop?
We travelled to Rinebeck, a pretty town of restaurants and antique shops. We ate in Pete’s Famous Diner and eavesdropped on the female manager talking to a customer: these were two immigrant women with heavily accented English, one from Thessalonica and the other from Georgia. This was a welcome antithesis to Trump’s America. The way the mind works, Trump’s intolerance and now clearly delineated racism was one of the subject at breakfast and thankfully our host and the other guests were liberals who totally rejected racism and white supremacist ideology even though they were white.
David Brown who owns 26 Warren Street was a highly present human figure. We found out later that he had been a principal dancer at Martha Graham’s and jointly with his partner and ex-wife Elisa Monte owned their own dance company. He was a tall, bronze man with grey dreadlocks and a memorable sculpted face. He certainly made an entrance when he came to say ‘good morning’.
Bret, the other half of the duo who owned 26 Warren Street, was a gentle, dark haired woman who was solicitous and efficient both at once. She was also self-contained. She told us that she has two daughters in their 20s. She was most exasperated with the endless talk of what’s wrong with Trump- “We all know that he is bad, that he’s racist, now let’s get rid of him!” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
This past fortnight, natural disasters included flooded Houston, Dhaka, and Markurdi. Sadly only Houston made the news. In the past 48 hours, Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and was now heading for Florida. Close on its tail was Hurricane Jose. These tempests are the physical embodiment of the tumultuous and catastrophic changes going on in America and with Brexit in the UK.
This long trip to America was coming to an end. On our last full day, we went to Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan. It was set in 49 acres and he lived there with his partner David Witney. Our guide told us the 3 themes governing Johnson’s architecture- procession, safe-danger and, reveal & hide. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Johnson loved small entrances that opened out. I suppose he had in mind a flute, or the cervix what we call ‘Ferese ile omo’ in Yoruba.
Johnson’s Glass House was transparent from outside and also from inside. It was practically part of the landscape, and from some perspectives, it could be difficult to see, that is how much like gossamer the house was. It was surprising that Johnson and Witney lived in this transparent home – the elegant lines are equally matched by the frugality of the inner arrangements: no clutter, no unnecessary or unclean lines. This style has been termed ruthless elegance and I concur.
Johnson’s Kunst Bunker was currently home to Lynn Davis’ Ice- an exhibition of photos from Greenland. Again, like with Frederick Church, it’s not the aesthetic vision or the realization of innovation that I found most appealing- it was the audacity to work with nature, altering it where necessary, in order to master it and then leaving a mark.
Beside his house and the other buildings, my own personal approach stood out in relief and it is one characterized by self-doubt, by restraint, by a melancholic disposition, an awareness of our fragility as humans and our mortality. Maybe a poetic sensibility is more inclined to shadows, darkness, and the demonic. Also, there is the knowledge that words are inadequate to capture what is most important because these are ultimately unutterable and unspeakable.
The journey to JFK was by Uber. Our driver, Robert, was a man of about our age, that is in his 60s. He had majored in geology, psychology and media studies. His passion was geology, he told us, with the aim of working in the oil industry. By his account, the chairman of his academic department advised him against this as he (Robert) was Jewish and most oil works were in the Middle East. He switched to the theatre and worked as an actor on Broadway for a time. He moved into producing adverts and did well until 2008 when he “took a hit”. He was now working as a cab driver whilst trying to set up again. He talked endlessly and expressed surprising opinions and strange values. He pointed out Trump links, praised Bloomberg and Trump for how swiftly the deal was completed. He didn’t like De Blasio, a liberal, how sad some of the things he was doing in New York.
Robert told us “ docility and domestication were achieved in dogs by ruthless breeding, imagine what could be achieved in humans, etc.” I don’t believe that I had ever met anyone, who explicitly and without irony, promulgated eugenics as a potential contemporary solution and it was most strange.
I was troubled by the Immigration Act 1924. I had understood from Rachel Maddow that Congressional eugenics experts developed the originating Bill. And furthermore, that the decision to end DACA was in part determined by Jeff Session’s admiration for the 1924 Act that attempted to retain the racial demography of the USA to the 1850 census data. The racist/racialist underbelly of American life was continuously surprising and frightening especially given the current incumbent of the White House.
Glad to be going home.
Photos by Jan and Femi Oyebode