On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes (10 page)

BOOK: On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes
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On our walk we came across a double-ghost: at least two ghost signs overlapping. A real estate concern and an ad agency both had named telephone exchanges—Canal 6–1212 and Orchard 4-1209—indicating that they dated to the mid-1900s. The signs were romantic and yet horribly ordinary. It is hard to believe that
today’s signs may be tomorrow’s beloved ghosts, but sure as my 1970’s polyester tritone shirt and my plebeian 1964 Volvo are now “classics,” it will likely be so. For Shaw, the ghost signs were more informative than nostalgic. While you might expect an architectural historian to be able to date a building by its window-frame style or the kind of brick used, Shaw was just as good an architectural detective, using only the evidence from the lettering.

And indeed, a half hour into our walk, we came across a strange architectural dig of a building. Regal but squat, wider than it was tall, it featured a limestone facade (crinoid rich, I now suspected, after walking with Sidney Horenstein) and a central, arching display window. Were there car showrooms along the street, I would have expected they would look something like this building. Shaw went straight into letter-assessment mode.

“This is really cool.”

Then he slipped into letter-
detective
mode. What caught his attention first was a delicate and colorful stained-glass sign, miraculously intact, protected by a plastic cover. For a big building, it was a very small building sign. We barely looked at what it
said
; instead, Shaw immediately identified its style: “That is Art Nouveau all the way: all the curves. The
B,
the
E,
the
R,
the
Y,
and the way everything fits together.”

Each letter had enormous character. An
A
swaggered; the
B
had a great belly; the
R,
a proud chest;
O
was apple shaped. They were golden colored and segmented, backed by a wash of sea-green glass. It was unlike any other public sign I had seen in the city.

Art Nouveau is a late-nineteenth-century style, and rare in this city: Shaw thought this was a replica. He stood on his tiptoes to try to get a closer look and found a
T-M
embossed on the ironwork. Stepping back from the building, we saw
TREE-MARK SHOES
engraved into the stone at the top of the building facade—“copying classical Rome,” he said, indicating dots carved between each word. Between all of these clues, he guessed the building’s date: early twentieth century with a late-twentieth-century revision.

At its edge was a
6,
the building’s numbered address. I looked wordlessly at Shaw, who responded: “That’s tacked on . . . from a hardware store.”

Make that . . . twentieth-century revision with a twenty-first-century hardware-store number.

A simple set of signs, unseen by even those who look at them, is a story of the past. To complete the story, I consulted newspaper archives and city guides. I found that 6-8 Delancey Street was constructed in its current form, first housing a theater and then a retail shoe shop (“shoes for abnormal feet,” their ads proclaimed), in 1929. Before that, it held residences, was the scene of a locally famous robbery implicating some New York City detectives, and then wound up as the euphemistic “disorderly house.”

It was now a rock club.
3

Give or take a decade or two, Shaw’s detectiving got us a fair biography of the building. There was nothing about the criminality of the police, of course. But it was lettering that led me there.

 • • • 

Three hours of walking with Shaw later, I felt relieved, for the moment, of my compulsion to read what was readable, to parse text when I saw it. Surprisingly, this relief came not from avoiding
text, but from seeking it out—only to zoom in on the details held within. It was a vision that let me miss the forest and see the trees. Rather than words, I saw the components of words. Some small part of my brain (the linguistic part) rested; the shape-identifying part hummed with activity.

Shaw and I parted ways under a beautiful neon sign, and I doubled back to the spot where we began our walk. It looked much the same. I felt a letdown that my quick immersion in lettering did not enable me, suddenly, to recognize the typeface on the street sign, or identify what was wrong with the spacing of the lettering glaring at me from an awning.

I glanced down from the architectural storefront’s name to the paneled wall. It was winter; the panels were closed, quiet. But then I saw something: letters. Each of the panels, far from being a random shape, was cut in the shape of a clumsy, enormous, serifless letter, as by a giant with a blunt X-Acto knife. I had caught Shaw’s disease, I realized,
I saw letters
.

As a college student, long ago, with a new Macintosh computer, the type whose screen was dwarfed by its computer case housing, I became a Tetris player. Do you know the game? If you do, I have just induced a nostalgic bubble to pop in your brain. Perhaps only one or two computer games came pre-loaded on the Mac, and this one had an addictive quality. Four simple shapes floated down from the top of the screen, and all one had to do was rotate them and send them scurrying to the left or right in an attempt to fill all the bins at the bottom of the screen before the shape landed, clumsily, on its edge. Tetris players know what happens after hours of playing this game. Objects in the
real
world all turn into variations on these shapes. Entering the library, I saw the jagged pieces that needed to be rotated vertically and set onto a matching shape. I felt the satisfaction of
L
-shaped pieces when looking at intricate floor tiling patterns. A long rectangular restroom
sign placed above a square handicapped sign made me thoroughly uncomfortable.

This is a real perceptual phenomenon, not just limited to video-game enthusiasts. The thing you are doing now affects the thing you see next. In conscribing my percepts to that computer screen for hours on end, I began heightening my ability to spot just those shapes that danced across it. Psychology research studying subjects playing Tetris (because psychology research can get away with studying
anything,
it seems) for seven hours over three days reified this “Tetris Effect.” The researchers kept the subjects in the lab overnight and woke them up when their brain waves indicated they were entering hypnagogic sleep, unofficially known as “just dropping off to sleep.” All of the subjects who did not poke or punch the nasty researchers, but who reported that they had been dreaming, were dreaming of falling Tetris pieces. Even amnesic subjects, who had no recollection of playing the game during the day, reported dreaming of the shapes: they could not explicitly remember what they had been doing, but their dreams told them.

A walk with Shaw left me with a Letter Effect. Now that I saw the storefront panels as letters, I couldn’t not see them. Together, they clearly spelled out a nonsense word, heavy in
P
s,
Q
s, and
U
s. Walking back to the subway, I glanced down at my feet as I crossed the street.
LOOK
was painted on the sidewalk where I stood. I will—but I feel sure that now, my vision changed, the letters will find me.

1
Font
is meant to refer to the set or assortment of letters you are using when you type; the
typeface
is the style of that font.

2
The typographers’ complaints must have reached the taxi powers-that-be, for at press time, a new logo began appearing on taxi doors: simply the
T,
unbothered by any further letters. One might think that a single letter would be unproblematic, design-wise, but if so, one has not met Shaw.

3
The Bowery Ballroom.

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”

(Sherlock Holmes)

Into the Fourth Dimension

“The front of a church I had never been in had become a gaping hole, its many doors propped widely open.”

“If you are ever bored or blue, stand on the street corner for half an hour,” writes Maira Kalman. She does not say what she expects will happen to you, your boredom, or your blueness after a half hour, but I now feel equipped to take a stab at it. On a humid, still day in late summer, I stood with Kalman, my friend and sometime co-conspirator in celebrating the ordinary, on a number of street corners for many minutes. We even stopped and sat on a bench at the median of two intersections for a solid thirty-five minutes. Not only was any glimmer of boredom vanquished, but I’ll be darned if I didn’t grow less azure by the second.

Kalman is an illustrator: her gouached, fantastical drawings are widely published—and then torn out of their magazines and newspapers and taped to office doors and walls. She is also a hoarder, in the finest sense of that word, of both experience and
image. Whereas typical hoarders accrue unreasonable quantities of physical—frequently nonessential—items, Kalman restricts her collecting to the noncorporeal.
1
She does not seem to favor the beautiful or the refined; nor is she only interested in the grotesque or curious. She collects the ordinary, the things that you trip over but have forgotten to look at. Her portrait of a pair of scissors has them planted jocularly (if scissors can be jocular) across a red background. They are not just any scissors, but that’s the rub: they
were
just any scissors to begin with. What changed them, or the cakes, tape dispensers, bottles, and lunch trays she has drawn, is that Kalman has looked at them, set them just so—and made us look, too.

I suspected that the reason the street corner is such an unboring, unblue place to stand with Kalman is that a lot of ordinary happens there all at once. I asked Kalman to walk with me so that we could look avidly at the ordinary. One perceptual constraint that I knowingly labor under is the constraint that we all create for ourselves: we summarize and generalize, stop looking at particulars and start taking in scenes at a glance—all in an effort to not be overwhelmed visually when we just need to make it through the day. The artist seems to retain something of the child’s visual strategy: how to look at the world before knowing (or without thinking about) the name or function of everything that catches the eye. An infant treats objects with an unprejudiced equivalence: the plastic truck is of no more intrinsic worth to the child than an empty box is, until the former is called a toy and the latter is called garbage. My son was as entranced by the ubiquitous elm seeds near our doorstep as any of the menus, mail, flyers, or trash that concern the adults. To the child, as to the artist, everything is relevant; little is unseen.

Once you look at what seems ordinary long enough, though, it often turns odd and unfamiliar, as any child repeatedly saying his own name aloud learns.
2
I had the suspicion that walking with Kalman would be the ambulatory equivalent of saying my own name aloud a hundred times. An inveterate walker, Kalman was happy to wander the blocks of our shared city with me. We met just off an intersection—an auspicious start for a walk with a person who declaims about street corners.

As we began, our attention went in different directions at once. While I was beelining down the block, Kalman was loitering. The vines peeking through an ornamental gate impressed her. Overhead, she noted that the signage of the scaffolding company featured one of her repeated illustrated motifs, the pyramids. Already, we were in familiar but odd territory. I thought of the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll, known for trying to imagine the sensory world of animals, whose approach has inspired my own research into the perspective of a dog. He observed that we are lazy in imagining the perspective of other
people,
too. “The best way to find out that no two human
Umwelten
[world-views] are the same,” he wrote, “is to have yourself led through unknown territory by someone familiar with it. Your guide unerringly follows a path that you cannot see.”

Following Kalman’s path, I was led straight to a discarded couch on the sidewalk. She spied it and just about leapt out of her skin with excitement.

“Oh my god. That’s like the bonanza of bonanza—there it is—it’s a sofa on the street, I cannot believe it.”

All too familiar with the twice-weekly trash piles that accumulate on city sidewalks as New Yorkers shake their houses
upside down until the dregs fall out, I could believe it. The subject of Kalman’s excitement was a long wooden couch set ungloriously near a mound of trash in front of an apartment building. Alfred Kazin, writing about walking in early-twentieth-century New York City, spoke of the “nude, shamed look” of furniture left outdoors as trash. I felt for the sofa: it belonged inside, partnered with stuffed armchairs and flanked by end tables, not exposed to weather and upturned dog legs. But Kalman loved it for the boldness of its naked arrival on the curb. She pulled out a small digital camera and snapped a photo, continuing to intone: “One cushion—it’s extra bonanza.” The single cushion beckoned the weary passerby to spare a moment to recline. One could see it had been well reclined upon in its previous life. Though the couch’s edges were worn and one leg was buckled, it had the look of former elegance: clean lines, no surfeit of frilliness, a proud back. Under our gaze it seemed for a moment to turn elegant again, lightening my heart burdened with the thought that it was now simply trash, unattended by side chairs and a coffee-table manservant.

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