I found halcyon on a street in New York. Not graffiti, but part of the pavement: a mound of tarmac, in the middle of which was a steel plate where the word appeared. Shining in the light, it looked like frosting. Who put it there? Who thought a steel plate on the street equaled peace or nostalgia? The company that installed it, Halcyon Construction, is based in Pleasantville, New York. It repairs sewers. It makes holes and covers them.
Halcyon began as Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds. She was married to Ceyx, son of the morning star. They were practically inseparable. Then one day Ceyx sailed off and died in a shipwreck, and in her grief Alcyone tried to drown herself. The gods took pity on the couple and turned them into birds so they could be together.
When Alcyone, now incarnated as a bird, chose to lay her eggs on a beach, her father, Aeolus, paused the winds and crashing waves so she could nurture the clutch in safety. Today those birds are kingfishers, which, according to legend, bring calm from storms and a string of peaceful days in winter. “Halcyon” went from a lover’s grief to peace, peace to a street in New York. Along the way, her name was adopted by Shakespeare. “Halcyon days,” with their moments of calm, carry us to an idyllic past and nostalgia, which might just be what happened to me on that street.
In 2007, Halcyon Construction was involved in a suit with Marianne Bingham, who’d tripped over one of its coverings. The hole had been covered but imperfectly. Bingham lost the case. She would be eighty-four now. I wonder about that day when she was crossing Madison Avenue, her confident steps. In her testimony, she talked of looking up. She wasn’t walking with the careful shuffle of the elderly, conscious of each footfall, but focusing ahead. The court papers report, “It is undisputed that Halcyon Construction…had placed the steel plate in the intersection, pinned it in place and ramped it with asphalt.” Ramping, in turn, is described as, “the creation of a smooth transition from one elevation to another through the use of asphalt.” Smooth transitions. Holes covered. Streets made neater, and on most days safer.
Last year I watched a short film about an anonymous guy who’d lost his memory. We never see him, just everything he does to try to recover his past. The movie is made from images that look like they’d been snatched wholesale from YouTube. The footage doesn’t narrate his search so much as fill the hole in his memory, as if anything would do. In the film, the unseen narrator describes going to the library because he’d heard all knowledge was stored there. Afterwards he realized, “There is no memory in photographs and texts…. Memory is the before and after of the history.” The film drove a wedge between history and memory, as if the two were distinct.
There are so many memories available that if we lose ours we can always make do with others, surrounded by unhinged personal histories. There’s little collective memory but infinite individual ones.
All those holes—in cities, in memory, in history, in collectivity, in language—remind me of renegade surrealist and spiritualist René Daumal. In his essay “The Pataphysics of Ghosts,” he tells a nearly cosmic joke as one circus clown asks another, “What is a hole?” Then answers his own question: “An absence surrounded by a presence.”
Daumal explains that this hole is a ghost, because ghosts are holes with “intentions, a sensibility, morals … an absent being amidst present beings.” Like the gaps and ghosts I find in the city, they’re absences among presence, with intentions, sensibility—morals. “We endow ghosts with intentions,” Daumal writes, “sensibility … these attributes reside not in the absent beings, but in the present ones that surround the ghost.” Basically, this also sounds like memory—and language.
Halcyon: a steel plate, a peaceful state, a bird, a wounded lover, the calmed wind and seas, nostalgia, this portal that I can’t describe all that well, but try to.
There was the city street—I can’t remember if it was Broome, but let’s say it was. I’ve decided this based on a staircase, metal steps covered with diamond-shaped lozenges, so you wouldn’t slip. A printer that made stickers had been on that block in the early 1990s. I went there when I was twenty-two with the idea of posting a serial story across the city, of an alien princess and the cockroaches from which she was descended. I was trying to find a way to cope with the legions of roaches in my tenement apartment and thought if I turned them into a story, I might magically transform the insects into something I could love. Does that give you a sense of place?
Or, there’s the smell of diesel’s gritty powder, and the sound of a horn. Does that carry you there with me? I doubt it. I can barely remember anything but stopping to take pictures and the person I was with and the other person I was thinking of, to whom I was going to send the photos. All my descriptions fail. They inevitably do because language, too, is a ghost of its intentions. It’s an approximation that never quite fits.
The smell and sound and steps here just below Houston Street carried me back two decades, to that time when I lived in a tenement dominated by drug dealers and an air of violence. My walls were marked with faint outlines in the dust of the posters that had hung there before I’d moved in. Every morning I’d wake up and write in a journal at a tiny table in the narrow kitchen. I’d stare out the window at a lone tree and a pair of mourning doves. Each morning I’d peer into another apartment across the way. Its walls were orange, McDonald’s bright, hideous no doubt, but the color seemed bold and full of hope. One day I decided to paint my own walls that same perversely enthusiastic color. At the hardware store, the clerk asked if I was sure this was the shade I wanted. Yes, definitely.
Six months later, at the kitchen table again, I looked across the way. It was afternoon this time, and the walls in that other apartment were white. Not orange. All I had seen was the morning sun.
Nearly two decades after that paint job, I met an artist, Kate Newby, who got me to think about that time again. We were on a remote island in the North Atlantic. It was winter, and together we bought an orange knit hat, that very same shade, which triggered the story. Afterward she made a piece for that place, that story, that time—pebbles pressed from porcelain, glazed orange and silver. She called it Orange Hat / Orange Room.
Now when I go to New York, I’m always juxtaposing what was twenty years ago. When I’m in the city it’s always in two moments, as if both are overlaid. I walk across Houston Street and down Clinton Street, where I lived. I stare up at the old apartment. I cross Broome, and there is “Halcyon.” I take the picture to send to Kate, who at that moment is half a world away, and those words in the street tear a portal through to where she is, as well as opening me up to nostalgia, to a different sort of day.
Halfway through One-Way Street, Walter Benjamin writes of love and memory, what we see and what we don’t. He talks about seeing your lover and how you don’t see her faults or rather the faults are endowed with beauty because they belong to the one you love. He goes on to say, “If the theory is true that feeling does not lodge in the head, that we feel a window, a cloud, a tree not in our brain but in the place where we see them, when we look at the loved one we are likewise outside ourselves.” And, I wonder here about memory and time travel, about being “likewise outside ourselves.” Is it possible as in the flood of images on the internet as images and memory separate, that by looking at your memories, I might be in two places at once? Could that be like Benjamin’s window or cloud, that I am here and there? Is that empty? Is that a hole? Maybe that is a promise.
That halcyon bird, the kingfisher, follows me in my upstate life. Here outside my office but also as I kayak along the shores of a reservoir. The reservoir is here but there; it’s also a hole in a place.
It’s in the mountains more than a hundred miles from New York City but part of the city too, owned by the city and policed by city cops. I paddle along the banks and the bird chases me, no doubt to protect her brood.
I look at art as something that rips open holes. On that island in the North Atlantic with her orange rocks made of porcelain, Kate got me to see the city anew, but writing often means trying to cover over the holes, making things neater, easier to see. I describe something so you picture it as I do. The words fill in the gaps—writing about art even more so. Art works, however, on multiple layers of meaning and questions, while writing about art is meant to close them and make art more approachable. What if I stop now and don’t tell you what something is like? That leaves a gap, a hole open for understanding and meaning. Describing it to you only covers it up. Instead I want to leave you here, haunted, open, perhaps with questions of your own.
These dispatches are from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.