I spent Wednesday morning wandering around city neighborhoods and parks, taking photos, looking into windows and peeking through fences. My father, who lived in Big City Like No Other as a young man, always says that if you want people to leave you alone in the city, you need to dress "one step up from homeless." I've always just shrugged off his advice, but as I glanced in the mirror before leaving my sister's apartment, it occurred to me I had probably achieved the right look. It's so much warmer in the city that we were getting a misty rain, so I had abandoned my wool winter coat for a wrinkle purple raincoat, with all kinds of things like my camera and wallet and cell phone stuffed into the pockets, over a red fleece with a long knitted multi-colored scarf and — naturally — sturdy hiking boots.
After wandering around for hours, I stopped at my favorite Big City Like No Other Cafe, which is conveniently just a block away from one of my favorite museums. It's a cafe that holds memories — I've eaten there with Wild Curly Hair, who first introduced me to the place, with Urban Sophisticate Sister, of course, and with Artist Friend. I've many times sat at one of their little tables, just staring out the window and writing in my journal. I am a creature of habit who loves to go back to the same place over and over again, even when I'm just visiting. I fortified myself with hot lentil soup, grilled vegetables, and bread that was so good I wanted to steal some to take home to Shaggy Hair Boy. And then I went to the Museum With Many Rooms of Amazing Art.
I always take one of the floor maps, but I am completely incapable of following it. I am too easily distracted, moving from sculptures to pottery to landscape paintings to photographs to stained glass windows. There's a rhythm to my wandering, really. When I'm tired, I'll find a bench so I can sit and gaze at a painting that takes up a whole wall. Once I've rested, I'll peer into glass cases to admire intricate details.
I do often read the little white signs next to works of art: I always want to know the story behind the piece. But the narrative is sometimes disappointing. I saw a Pieta, for example, in which the Blessed Mother looked like she was about to slap her dying son. I went over eagerly to read the text, wondering what artist finally dared to show the Mother of Christ with a righteous edge, but the text didn't mention anything about the raised hand.
As I wandered through a room filled with sculptures of naked men and women, I couldn't help but think about a friend of mine, who back in the 80s when his son was born, kept trying to convince his wife that they should circumcise the child. He kept arguing that he's been on all kinds of sports teams, and he had never seen an uncircumcised male. Clearly, he should have been looking in art museums instead of locker rooms.
My wanderings led me eventually into a maze of dark green rooms, filled with masks made by the Kwele people of Africa. I found a comfortable bench set in a dark alcove, where I watched a film about initiation rites for adolescent boys. I loved the chanting, the words, the symbolism. Perhaps, I thought, we need more rituals like that in our culture, ways to guide the energy of young people and help them make the transition into adulthood. The masks themselves, lit by spot lights in the dim room, were eerily beautiful.
When I glanced at my watch, I realized that hours had gone by, and it was time for me to get my suitcase from my sister's house and take the subway to mid-town to check into the conference hotel. I left the museum at the same time as a school group, a whole gang of teenagers and their weary-looking teacher. The teenagers were bumping into each other and teasing each other and jabbing each other with rolled-up umbrellas. I walked amongst them, absorbing all that energy and feeling right at home.