Solid though they are, the survival of buildings is as precarious as the survival of texts.
By Mark Fenton
Published March 06, 2017
...Dante has prepared for this moment by staging a significant series of voyages within the poem in which he calls attention to a commanding officer standing on a poop deck...If we are troubled by Dante's "Admiral Beatrice," we must also realize that the poet has chosen to disturb us in this way.
—Robert Hollander, excerpt from note to line 58, Canto XXX, Purgatorio, Dante Alighieri.
Let's make the best of the situation
Before I finally go insane
—"Layla" Eric Clapton/Jim Gordon
The photograph below is copied and pasted from a blog called stuffnobodycaresabout.com, a title that urges you to care - or at least decide why you shouldn't.
It dates from 1908. I came across it while I was looking for photos of flat iron buildings and their etymology.
I'm glad that I found it. I'd confused the original Fuller Building (the eponymous Flat Iron Building on 175th and 5th Avenue) for a completely different but similarly shaped building I know from the cover of Kafka's Amerika, a book I've owned for decades.
To capture the image that heads this essay the camera points at One Times Square/1475 Broadway, which in turn points back. It's hard not to love the photo purely for its crispness and mastery of light, light which would emanate out of the print even if it weren't translated to a computer screen.
The pale grey of its surface floats like ash from a document incinerated for holding a memory so beautiful its loss was agonizing to contemplate.
As for the weirdly filtered depiction on the cover of my Amerika, I don't let this book out of my office. It's a replacement copy and I'm jittery about losing it again. My first copy of the book portrayed another New York City icon, vertically bisected and shifted.
I lost the book when I was accosted by bullies on the way home from Westlawn Junior High School [Sic: that's what we called middle-school in 70s Alberta and I'm not budging on this.] It was removed from my backpack and destroyed in front of my face as I lay struggling under the constraint of 13 year-old thugs who gave no explanation for what made my possession of the book a crime.
No, I did not ponder the irony that a book depicting Lady Liberty torn vertically was now being torn literally, as I lay horizontally, deprived of my own liberty. Nor did I marvel at how Kafkaesque this seemingly unmotivated assault was. Nor, as my baggage was being unpacked literally, did I go glass-half-full and think how fertile a subject this would be to unpack symbolically in a photo essay.
I was just there.
Surely we are at a point where even professional comedians have trouble finding anything left to work with when they comb current events for material. Typically the story and its participants have done all the work and a comedian just needs to rerun it.
As I was Googling info on the Statue of Liberty, a Forbes article, only 20 hours old, came onto to the screen. The manufacturer of this shooting iron,
goes by the handle of 'Jesse James.' I've excerpted an exchange with Mr. James to give a sense of the interview's tone.
Q: You appeared on Season 8 of "The Apprentice," and you're an outspoken Trump supporter. How do you see the Trump administration impacting the firearms business?
A: Everything is going great!
Here's the lesson about the literal that I clearly missed that afternoon in Edmonton. The literal thing can be contrived into a firearm. This may protect you. A paper representation of the thing cannot. In fact it can be destroyed before your eyes as you lie repressed and humiliated.
The obvious rebuttal to this line of argument is that if I'd had the weapon above to defend myself from the bullies it's likely I'd still be doing hard time. I'm making more of the incident than it deserves. I and the peers who assaulted me were quite friendly in class the next day. Though I did want to finish Amerika and know how it turned out.
Solid though they are, the survival of buildings is as precarious as the survival of texts. Thankfully we still have vintage flatiron buildings in Hamilton, due to King Street East soaring subtly northward then plummeting dramatically, like a seabird rising to survey the water for movement and then diving for prey.
The outcome of this collision is an acute angle pointing east-south-east at the intersection of Main and King. Hamilton's flatiron isn't tall enough to have been converted into a support for electronic billboards, and if you're me
it's hard to look at the above without lamenting the conversion of its centrepiece. And am I the only one perplexed that it's called a square when it's an isosceles triangle?
Our flatiron still sits unmasked, proud as the prow of a ship
and few edifices more resemble the thing available therein
My first visit was frustrated by not having enough change for the metre when I parked my car.
I quickly saw that the one constant among flatiron blocks is proximity to a McDonalds.
It was a cold day and I went inside to buy food that would provide me with change for the metre, and yes I am a member of that set of people who lack the courage to walk into a retail business and ask for change without buying anything.
In the February light of high-noon the crisp anonymity of the silhouette
has both the palette and the clean, sad geometry of solitary living that the graphic novels of Chris Ware capture so poignantly.
If Delta Block
is a ship I will board at some point, my first task is to circumnavigate it. I have no Beatrice to guide me. I'm on my own. Toppling once again from the journalistic tightrope of a story, I land in the linguistic safety-net of a definition.
Delta. Δ. From the Greek letter. A geometric form and symbol for anything that changes. Delta Blues. Synecdoche for African American guitar and vocal music originating from the region of the Mississippi delta.
Where the Mississippi delta fans outward into the Gulf of Mexico, Delta Block narrows inward to a prow that drivers can whip around legally, doing 336 degrees of a U-turn (oboy measuring that
on a workday, at dusk, got some looks!) and every time I went back there I did that and every time it was more fun even than I'd remembered.
At a stretch, Delta Blues can stand for music performed with the rhythmic style and progressions of its Mississippi sources, however distant the performers, ethnically culturally and geographically.
Even a 1970 album by a band of comparatively advantaged Englishmen calling themselves Derek and the Dominos bears a relationship to the form, both in rhythm, chord progressions, and the slough of despond into which the blues so eagerly sinks and so stoically abides.
The blues is often glibly described as music that requires a landscape of post-industrial detritus and rainy days, but in my reckoning this is needlessly limiting. The blues would be a fine soundtrack to Dante's journey, composed during his endless walking tour through sunny Tuscany- that's the political exile I want - represented by the desolate cantos before Beatrice becomes his pilot.
And even on my micro-tour I'm wired to an iPod playlist of my own meticulous creation: the original sources for the Rolling Stones 2016 covers album Blue and Lonesome.
You've guessed the songs on my playlist are in the same order as on the Stones album, and you've further guessed that I have Blue and Lonesome itself on another playlist and you've still further guessed that the playlists individually, sequentially, randomized, intermixed, or even randomized and intermixed are a wicked-ass soundtrack for cruising the diners of 21st century Delta Block, even in crisp, dry February.
Something needs to get explained here in the interest of responsible journalism. You can probably tell from the scattergun time-shifts of these photos that I made multiple trips to Delta Block. That's because I only slowly began to figure out what I was writing about.
And every time I went there I felt an obligation to purchase something from the vendors I scrutinized, a quotidian diet I'm unaccustomed to and which diet made me feel I was falling into a Supersize Me type documentary without any focused health thesis or medical monitoring.
This might make the project seem like a documentary about North American ubiquity. But I also found the inscrutable menace of Kafka. The Kafka sense of being in an unspecified town in Central Europe, a town built on strange angles in some indefinite period in the late middle ages, lost in labyrinths both outdoors and indoors
where the hero is a faceless everyman and doesn't know what he's doing here and can't escape, and doesn't know where he would escape to if he could.
Triangulating the block over several days I discovered that the back of the architectural pizza slice is not a solid line curved like a crust to match the road behind it.
No. The stern is far more intriguing than the bow. If we pursue the ship image of Delta Block as relentlessly as Dante's does on the run-up to paradise in Canto XXX, I'm now looking upwards towards the poop deck on which Admiral Beatrice would be positioned were she there for me to meet.
The geometry is almost indescribable, as though Delta Block has been fixed in the vise of time like the head of an axe (yet another flatiron) when one hammers in a delta shaped block to affix it.
And it's as though that block were then removed, leaving volumes and angles that defy conventional expectations of geometry and architecture.
The back of Delta Block is indeed like architecture of old European cities, structures shoved in willy-nilly to exploit every available square or triangular foot, strangely angled street-wall morphing fluidly over centuries, builders improvising solutions as they go along.
Strangely angled abodes have haunted me since I was a child and saw this B. Kliban drawing.
The image returned to me when I moved to Toronto in 1987 during a housing saturation similar to the one we're in now. At that time all I could afford was a single room sublet and I had recurring nightmares about how my monthly budget would allow me no more than a room exactly the shape of my body, perhaps an inch larger on every side. And I further calculated that my monthly rent would increase $35.00 for every pound I gained.
I now imagine relatives of Fred occupying Delta Block apartments. Zooming in
divided along unlikely vertical lines-the low-rise equivalent of the Statue of Liberty on my destroyed Amerika-the fragments become anthropomorphic companions.
Between obsessive visits to Delta Block-which more and more resembled those of a criminal returning to the scene of his crime-snippets from Dashiell Hammett whispered through my dreams.
...night fog, thin, clammy, and penetrant blurred the street...Spade crossed the sidewalk between iron-railed hatchways that opened above bare ugly stairs.
—The Maltese Falcon
And so I started going by night, as if to prove to myself that reality is less disturbing than nightmares. It seldom is, and Delta Block is no exception. I was grateful not to be filled with lead from a gun containing pieces of the statue of liberty.
If in the first section of the essay you have slapped an automatic onto a bare table, then in a later section it should be fired, otherwise don't put it there would be a really loose paraphrase of Chekhov's famous statement about a rifle appearing on the stage set in Act One and I think you'll take my meaning here.
It was Family Day, and I brought by eldest daughter to Delta Block to normalize my presence there as part of an unremarkable father/daughter outing. I've done this before and in terms of avoiding police interrogation it's more successful than when I go alone into dark nooks and just lurk.
My photo accidentally captures a woman alone in the corner of the restaurant and for my purposes she becomes the mate to the man I'd photographed the previous day. My instinct is to spin them out of Chrisware solitude into a narrative mythic and large. Less Dante and Beatrice than the romance of Layla and Mujnan, immortalized by the great 12th century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. If you don't know the story, here's what happens.
Privileged yet star-crossed, Layla and Mujnan become romantically obsessed with one another from just a few passing glances. They never get together. Despite the clash of armies enlisted to unite them they're doomed to frustrated loneliness unto death.
In my contemporary version the lovers would be separated not by tribal and parental interdictions, but rather a by lack of a few digital sequences. My story would contain a meeting in the McDonalds queue, a few words exchanged, separation, and then a desperate search for each other.
For weeks, months, years, they haunt the solitude of fast food franchises, stolid nighthawks whose union is frustrated only by lack of a phone number, an e-mail, a Facebook address, each combing social media to match the face ever hovering in perpetual daydream.
(I think I see this tale as a movie and one of the dramatic ironies is that they repeated fail to see each other even when they're in the same restaurant at the same time because they're fixated on their phones.)
After years of trawling the internet, they connect in the unlikeliest of places: the comments section of a raisethehammer.org article about Delta Block. In minutes, miraculously, they realize that they occupy apartments on opposite sides of Delta Block and are at this very moment sitting in the Delta Block Pizza Pizza, both slurping those last hard to get drops out of a Brio can.
They turn, see each other, and rush into one another's arms. Yes, unlike Nizami I'm a sucker for the happy ending. But feel free to write your own conclusion.
With my daughter as a decoy, I burrowed into Delta Block's aft. Wispy visions of night and fog were identical to what I had dreamt.
The complexity of angles means that many subjects intersect here. A Kafka nightmare, a memory of bullies who retract Amerika from my backpack shredding it so relentlessly it fills the air like a fine mist, a pursuit through dire backstreets in a 30s gangster flick on the model of Dashiell Hammett.
I see a man running to save his life. An everyman. Now me, now a gangster named Vince or Louie, or Malone. Pinstripe suit. Two-tone-touch-them-you-die brogues. Rakishly offset homburg glued to his hair. Hair lacquered to his scalp. Butt end of a cigar clenched in a desperate grimace. He, or rather a figure morphing into me, chooses a back-alley dodge and chooses wrong. It's worse than a dead end. It's a trap with narrowing walls. No end but that of the mouse in a Kafka parable:
...these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into." "You only need to change your direction," said the cat, and ate it up.
—"A Little Fable," translated by Willa and Edwin Muir
I'm on board the ship now and happy enough to let someone else do the navigating.
Beatrice is admiral in dreams. Here a flesh and blood Dante pilots the ship. Which is all Dante ever was. Like Mujnan when he glimpsed Layla, Dante captured an ideal, not a person, and lost her forever. The real Beatrice died when she was 24, three years into a marriage with somebody else.
Marriages navigated in the labyrinths of creative genius tend to disappoint when they become literal, something Eric Clapton might have heeded, having consumed Nizami's poem and then superimposed the heroine's name over his own romantic obsession. Talk about suffocating the real person beneath an ideal.
Then again, I've imposed my own ideals over flesh and blood people, here and elsewhere. Right now someone at the table behind me is taking a photo (at the very least I'm on multiple surveillance cameras) and writing a version of me that I fear isn't exactly...
I have to end this. The pilot wants help nudging the uncommonly stiff helm a bit more southward. After that, he says, we're full ahead to 1475 Broadway/One Time's Square. He wants to see how much it resembles a photo taken in 1908.
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