Fricking Art Central!

One of the great New York traditions that I wouldn’t have seen except for our friends Michael and Jenny is Shakespeare in the Park, a series of free summer performances of Shakespeare plays at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.

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Joseph Papp, an A+ chap

 

The New York Shakespeare Festival (later to become Shakespeare in the Park) was set up in 1954 thanks to the vision and pep of theatrical producer and director Joseph Papp, whose aim was to make Shakespeare’s works accessible to the public. In 1957, he was granted the use of Central Park for the shows and in 1961 (after a legal scuffle with the groundskeeper) a theater was built especially for these performances. Since then, the Delacorte Theater has been the setting for annual summer performances, mostly of Shakespeare though there have also been seasons of Greek theater, Gilbert & Sullivan and other crowd-pleasers.

 

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castle thingy

 

The Delacorte is an outdoor amphitheater perched on a bosky hill with a castle-like structure in the background. The first actors step onto the stage at eight o’clock, just as the clouds are turning pink and the birds are twittering in their roosts. As the play begins, darkness falls but no one notices because they’re under a spell.

 

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a lanky Romeo and Juliet outside the box office

 

The fact that the performance is free and that seats are limited has led to the evolution of a particular box-office procedure. The tickets are all given out at noon on a first-come-first-served basis until the tickets are gone.  But even if you are last in line you have a chance at a good seat because the seats are assigned randomly. Each person can only take two tickets per performance. 

Michael, a Shakespeare-in-the-Park veteran, has perfected the art of ticket-getting and this year I had the privilege of participating in the time-honored ritual to get tickets for Coriolanus.  He said the line starts to form quite early but you could usually be sure of a ticket if you got there before ten.  

It was a hot day and I noticed that as soon as I entered the park, it got about five degrees cooler. Michael had set up two deckchairs under a big tree, so there was shade and even a little breeze. What’s more, he lent me a palm-leaf fan and gave me some ice-water that Jenny had prepared. Pretty soon we were completely comfortable and scoffing at the so-called ‘heat wave’ sweeping the East this week.

There were about forty other people in line, sitting on the grass chatting and watching a very athletic herding-dog chase a frisbee. The dog seemed to think we’d all come specifically to admire him and was putting on a real show. When its owner finally got tired and sat down, the dog picked up the frisbee and dropped it politely but firmly at a stranger’s feet. Then it ran to hide behind a tree, only to spring out as soon as the frisbee went whizzing past. Meanwhile, a saxophonist moved his way down the line, also looking for admiration (and money), honking out the sorts of tunes you play in high school jazz band. We all learned that he’d been studying architecture but had dropped out of classes to pursue his first love—music. He pointed out that the saxophone was really, really heavy, especially since he had to hold it for three hours.

 

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Note that it does not say ‘Saxophone Music of Shakespeare’s Time’

 

The morning passed pleasantly in conversation, people-watching and guesses on whether or not the performance would be rained out (it would actually be thundered-and-flooded out!). Our cellphone weather apps seemed to suggest we might escape the predicted deluge. Suddenly, bright young volunteers organized us into groups and we were herded up to the box office to collect our tickets.

Everything having gone as planned, Michael headed home and I decided to stroll through the Park. Despite it being much hotter out of the shade of the big tree, it was a nice walk until I got to fifth avenue, at which point I realized that I was covered in sweat. Just then, I saw a large mansion with the words ‘Frick Collection.’ Supposing that it probably had air conditioning, I decided to go in before I got heat stroke.

 

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Once in, I almost backed right out again because the place was extremely fancy. The museum staff were impeccably dressed and every square inch was polished. However, it definitely was air-conditioned so I decided to persevere. There was a bag search and then a bag check-in. I bought a ticket at a reduced price – well, it will be reduced if I go see two other museums this month.

The house used to be the residence of industrialist, financier and union-breaker Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919). He made his fortune as founder of Frick Coke Company. Because coke was necessary for steel production, he partnered up with steel magnate Andrew Carnegie and they formed the Carnegie Steel Company, later United States Steel.  

 

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It may be an exaggeration to call Frick a mass-murderer, but at least two incidents suggest that he lacked the milk of human kindness. One was the 1889 Johnstown flood, which recent studies have shown his rich-guys’ club was largely responsible for. The second was his heavy-handed union-breaking behavior in Homestead strike. Unfortunately, however, when Emma Goldman’s lover, anarchist Alexander Berkman, made an assassination attempt on Frick, public sympathy for the strikers evaporated.

 

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Debris from Johnstown flood

 

Meanwhile, like other big American capitalists of the period, Frick was busy hoarding European art. And, to give the bastard credit, he was exceptionally good at it. As you can see on the museum’s website, there are hundreds of items and most of them are very beautiful.

The house itself is ridiculously grandiose, clearly built to display artwork and to make an impression. On first glance though, the nicest room in the house was the open-air courtyard and garden. The sunlight, water and greenery provide a sense of relaxation and, whereas the galleries with their grand huge paintings end up feeling oppressive.  

 

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I sat down in the video room and watched a clip of a nice man called Edmund de Waal nattering on about some porcelain and steel installations he’d made to compliment the gallery collections. You can see it here. Near the end of the video I heard a woman behind me whisper, ‘It’s ugly. I hate it. It’s wrong.’ I couldn’t decide if she was right or not. To me, de Waal’s porcelain cups looked like IKEA cups but I don’t know anything about art. The way he pinged the porcelain with his fingernail and rhapsodized about the beautiful sound made him seem like an appealing nerd anyway. On walking through the galleries later, though, I found I didn’t really notice these installations at all. Maybe I did subliminally. 

The Frick Collection certainly does have some impressive paintings. There is a Hogarth where there doesn’t seem to be any obvious joke and he actually likes his subject Miss Mary Edwards ; Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl ; and The Forge by Francisco Goya.

 

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The one that bothered me the most was Frans Snyders by Anthony van Dyck. There’s something about the guy’s voluminous black robe, thin face and long pale fingers that seems frightening, almost inhuman and mysteriously vicious. I now wonder if it has anything to do with Snyders’ tendency to paint ghastly arrangements of carcasses.

 

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‘Dead Game, Fruits and Vegetables in a Market’ by Frans Snyder

 

One piece that I found moving was a piece that is on special loan to the museum—Christ on the Cross between the Virgin and Saint John by Simone Martini, about the size of a paperback book.  If you click the link above and magnify the image on the screen, you can make out patterns that have been stamped or etched into the gold leaf, the flush of color on Mary’s and John’s cheeks and distress on their faces.

 

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I guess I just prefer medieval art because after that I went into some baroque-themed room and saw a vapid Rococo lady on a sleigh who was supposed to represent Winter. At that point I decided I was cool enough and should be heading home. There’s only so much art you can look at in one go!

 

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‘Winter’ by François Boucher

Selby Junior’s Sunset Park

Where we’re living now is not that rough, but you can sort of tell that it used to be. It’s the place Herbert Selby Jr. described in Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), a novel that was described as ‘brutal’,   prosecuted for obscenity in the UK and outright banned in Italy. In spite of gentrification (today I saw an ‘avocaderia’) there are a few hints of that earlier age in the rusty junkyards, sex stores, used-car lots  and a ‘World-Class Gentleman’s Club’ called ‘PP’. So, as a way to summon up that age full of grime, violence and wretchedness, here are some images from Sunset Park with quotes from the novel.

 

“Everybody had money during the war. The waterfront was filled with drunken seamen. And of course the base was filled with doggies. And they were always good for a few bucks at least. Sometimes more. And Tralala always got her share. No tricks. All very simple.”

 

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“The day had been long and hot. It had been many hours since anyone had looked up at the clear blue sky. It was still summertime and there were many more hot days to come.”

 

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“Anyway, he had this 76 and Tommys long and kinda skinny and he sorta looked like the bike was growin outtaim; like he had a bike between his legs instead of a pecka. And when he kicked it over he just sat there like he was restin or something and gave a little push on the peddle and BaROOOM.”

 

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“Sat down and lit a cigarette and stared out the window. Smoked. Nothing on the street. No one. Car parked across the street. empty.” 

 

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“When he stopped moving he lay still for a moment hearing their heavy breathing then kissed her, caressed her arms then rolled slowly and gently onto the bed, stretched out and soon slept. Harry was happy.”

 

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“Ada opened the window. The air was still and warm. She smiled and looked at the trees; the old ones, tall, big and strong; the young ones small, springy, hopeful; sunshine lighting the new leaves and buds. Even the budding leaves on the hedges and the young thin grass and dandelion sprouts were alive with sunshine.”

 

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“Still like the Pontiac. If I was buyin a car. Put fender skirts on it, grill lights, a set a Caddy hubcap and a bigass aerial in the rear…shit, thats the sharpest job on the road. Your ass. Nothin can touch the 47 Continental convertible. Theyre the end. We saw one uptown the other day. What-a-fuckin-load. Man!!!”

 

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“Anyway, the beach was nice even just sitting on a bench getting the sun. She watched a small child ride by on his tricycle then watched a group of children running after each other and yelling.”

 

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Let them Eat Nothing

Finding myself in Manhattan yesterday, I decided to make a pilgrimage of three blocks to the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park, between the World Financial Center and the East River. It’s an unusual monument dedicated to the memory of the Great Famine Gorta Mór of 1845 to 1849. It’s built in the shape of an abandoned stone cottage, open to the sky. Its outer walls are lined with quotes to do with the Irish Famine and to famine in general.

 

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looking towards Manhattan from the top of the monument

 

There is a great animated history of the famine’s causes in this video by Extra Credits. While it has traditionally been attributed to unlucky crop failure, it actually had more to do with money and bitter sectarian strife, like the famine in Yemen right now.  

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After the English Civil War, Cromwell took 80% of Ireland (in orange on the map) and gave it to his troops in lieu of cash.  The displaced Irish farmers were moved to poor-quality pasture in Connaught. In 1702 the (completely Protestant) Irish Government passed severe Penal Laws that restricted Catholics from holding offices or owning land.

Perhaps understandably, the majority-Catholic Irish were not particularly happy with this state of affairs. A 1798 Uprising failed. In 1803 Robert Emmet was hanged for attempting another rebellion.  In the first three decades of the century, Daniel O’Connell campaigned peacefully for Catholic Emancipation and was finally successful, leading to the Tithe War of 1830-1836, in which a large chunk of the Catholic population resisted paying taxes to the Church of England.

 

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Punch cartoon depicting Irishman ‘Mr G. O’Rilla’

 

By 1840, most of the land in Ireland was owned by English aristocrats, many of them absentee. Irish farmers rented the land but could be evicted as soon as their rent fell into arrears—they had no security of tenure. Forty percent of the population lived in one-room mud huts and subsisted on potatoes.  

Meanwhile, laissez-faire capitalism was gaining fans across Europe. One particularly ardent proponent of the system was Charles Trevelyan, who was appointed assistant secretary to Her Majesty’s Treasury in January 1840. Trevelyan held his position for nineteen years and was in charge of distributing relief during the famine. In 1848, he was rewarded with a knighthood for his efforts.

 

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‘he had a remarkable insensitiveness’ — Cecil Woodham-Smith

 

In 1845, when a fungus-like organism turned Ireland’s potatoes black, and the Irish began to starve, Trevelyan decided that they should be left to their fate. The Economist, a magazine founded in 1843, endorsed this view, opposing any food aid. In 1846, Trevelyan ordered that relief programs be shut down. His greatest fear was that the starving Irish would grow to depend on the relief. Like other members of the British upper and middle classes, he believed the famine was “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence”, as he wrote in his book The Irish Crisis (1848), and he wrote in a letter to Lord Monteagle of Brandon that it was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population”. He was right about that; as a result of the famine about a million people died and twice as many fled. My ancestors, the O’Reillys and Liddys, ended up in New Zealand and my husband’s came to New York. His great-grandparents arrived at Ellis Island with nine children and nothing else, ready to start again. 

 

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Before visiting the monument, I was hungry so I walked into the big mall next door and bought a croissant and a coffee. Then I sat down in front of it eating and reading the walls. It seemed a bit callous to be eating mall food in front of a monument built to commemorate victims of economically-induced starvation, but there it is.

Replete, I entered a dark, claustrophic passage lined with quotes and came out into a wild meadow-like garden of poppies and grasses, interspersed with rocks, each one engraved with the name of a county. I looked for Cavan, which is where John’s family is from, and was upset when I couldn’t see it.

 

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A couple of young boys were delighted with the path and scooted up it, the older one calling to their mother to tell her when they got to the top. The view was really nice, and rich.

 

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Back down the bottom, I considered buying a can of red spray paint and writing YEMEN in large letters on the ground at the entrance, but of course I won’t. Maybe in a hundred years there will be a nice even-handed monument to atone for our great crime.

 

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Met Cloisters and the Pennsylvania Kid

One of New York’s big tourist attractions is the Metropolitan Museum of Art , which is actually three different museums. Most people know the one on Fifth Avenue but there is also the Met Breuer (a museum of modern and contemporary art) on 945 Madison Avenue, and the Met Cloisters, which displays medieval artefacts in a quasi-medieval setting in Fort Tyron Park by the Hudson River.

I’d already visited the Cloisters but that was back in winter and I got there half an hour before closing time so I’d had to walk-run through the rooms doing a quick look-see, which is not really the true spirit of museum visiting nor cloistering. Now that New York City is in the sweaty grip of summer, with humid green days slumping into evenings of pink-grey haze, I decided to drag John there for a day trip in order to enjoy it in a more meditative fashion.

As luck would have it, the apartment where we’re staying has a guide to the museum written by James R. Rorimer, published in 1963. This meant that I had something to read on the 90-minute subway ride across town. John, who didn’t want any more Middle Ages than absolutely necessary, contented himself with people-watching. One of the perks of living in New York City is the Subway experience, which is a bit like physically jumping into Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘Harrowing of Hell’. You have the crush of humanity, the chaos, the darkness, the confined spaces, occasional nakedness, scuttling rats and funny smells.

 

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I’m not saying that it’s bad, necessarily. It might be uncomfortable to be trapped there eternally, but hourly doses here and there can be an enriching experience. Gazing at all the different people and their funny little ways without having to interact with them is restful and lowers the heartrate, like watching tropical fish.

There were people of all races, ages, creeds and sartorial preference. It being Pride month, there were plenty of gorgeously dressed and made-up and bespangled mermaids, princesses and rainbow unicorns. One of the city’s most destitute and desperate citizens entered the car, which happens occasionally, and delivered a speech that someone must have taught her to memorize because the speeches was identical to others I’ve heard, with an odd impersonal wording and upbeat delivery.

 

‘Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen, My name is [XXX] and I hope you can help me today. I live in a shelter and am hungry. Anything you can spare will help, whether it be a dollar or a dime. If you have food you can spare that would also be much appreciated. I’m currently looking to buy a [collared shirt/pair of workboots/coat] so that I can look presentable at my job interview. Thank you, have a blessed day.’

 

 A very thin jaundiced looking woman of sixty, she delivered this speech with impressive dignity and panache before moving on to the next car. At the next stop a couple stepped in, the man strumming on a guitar and the woman belting out a mariachi tune at top volume. Most passengers amused themselves by scrolling through messages on their phones, playing Candy Crush, fidgeting or napping. A can of some kind of milky substance had fallen on the floor of the subway car and was creating a sticky white streak.

As John swam in all of this local color, I started reading the guide, which began thusly:

 

The purpose of The Cloisters, as expressed by the donor, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., is to provide a culminating point of interest in the architectural design of Fort Tyron Park and to display in an appropriate setting works of art and architecture of the Middle Ages. The original plan of the museum was developed around elements of the cloisters of five French monasteries, dating from the twelfth to the fifteenth century; it was from these elements that the name of The Cloisters was derived.  

 

Not the liveliest paragraph ever written. After flicking ahead, I realized the whole thing was written in this dust-on-toast prose. Even the photos were dull, black-and-white, flat and grainy, conveying as much mystique and grandeur as a medieval slop-bucket. It had no draw. It lacked sex appeal.

Luckily, thanks to the Internet, I discovered a much more interesting backstory, one involving Forbidden Love, Tragic Death and Homoerotic Sculpture.

 

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John D. Rockefeller may have donated the museum to the city, but he bought the cloisters themselves from someone else, a handsome young American sculptor named George Grey Barnard (1863-1938). This talented artist from Pennsylvania went to Paris as a youth to study at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts and whilst there met an extremely wealthy American named Alfred Corning Clark.

 

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Portrait of Alfred Corning Clark by William Jacob Baer (1893) 

 

Clark was the only surviving child of Edward Cabot Clark, lawyer, businessman and co-founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Much to his father’s annoyance, he had a horror of business and preferred to be a gay collector and patron of the arts. Although he bowed to convention by marrying a woman and fathering four children, Alfred’s true love was a strapping Norwegian tenor named Lorentz Severin Skougaard. In 1869, the same year that Alfred married Elizabeth Scriven, he started making annual summer trips to Norway. When his first child was born, Alfred even named him ‘Edward Severin Clark’, which may or may not have annoyed his wife. This situation continued for nineteen years, when Skougaard died of typhoid and died on a visit in New York in 1885.   

 

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In 1886, Clark commissioned Barnard to sculpt a tombstone called Brotherly Love, which now stands in Langesund, Norway. He also provided financial support towards Barnard’s upkeep in Paris and commissioned more works such as Struggle of Two Natures in Man (1888), which Rodin admired.  

 

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Note the little bat on the man’s arm

 

Now that he was considered hot stuff in the Parisian artworld, and had a wealthy patron, Barnard returned to the US in 1895. Unfortunately, Alfred Clark died in 1896, so Barnard had to start cosying up to some of the other biggest wallets in New York, J.D. Rockefeller among others.

In 1902 he got a commission to do a statue for the Pennsylvania Capitol Building. While he was working on this project in France, however, the money fell through and he had to think quickly about how to make money on the side. It was about this time that he started bicycling around the French countryside picking up odds and ends from medieval ruins. Either he would buy from French dealers or ‘gather’ things in situ or  bargain with locals who were propping the barns up with scavenged gargoyles. Barnard had an eye for fine sculpture, a burning need for cash and an awareness that at that very time (1900-1912) the American banker John Pierpont Morgan was going on a massive spending spree, buying up as many artworks as he could, especially medieval artworks.

The French art collector René Gimpel, who often travelled to New York and met Barnard, acidly observed in his journals, that Barnard was “very much engrossed in carving himself a fortune out of the trade in works of art.” and that he “talks of art as if it were a cabalistic science of which he is the only astrologer…he speaks to impress. He’s a sort of Rasputin of criticism. The Rockefellers are his imperial family. And the dealers court him.”

Apart from a wheelbarrowful of artefacts, Barnard managed to acquire four cloisters: Cuxa, Saint-Guilhem, Bonnefont and Trie, reportedly paying very little for them. A couple of cloisters were only partially complete so he went about carving new fixtures to make them look more or less whole and medievalish. By 1914, he had enough to create his own museum in Manhattan. But he didn’t have a good head for money and in 1925 had one of many financial crises. J.D. Rockefeller, who did have a good head for money, acquired the whole collection for $700,000 and made plans to build  the Cloisters for the Metropolitan. He bought land, hired park designers and architects and financed the purchase of more artworks. The work was complete in 1938 and officially opened on May 10, just a couple of weeks after Barnard’s death by heart attack.

 

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Bullied at the Border

‘We made it! I don’t know how,’ I said as we stepped into John F. Kennedy airport.

‘Sheer necessity,’ John said. He looked stoically at the mass of humanity in front of us, much as a steppe warrior might survey the vast, unforgiving plains. ‘In a hundred years, people are going to say about us, “How did they cope with death?” And the answer will be, “They had no choice.”’

The Texas televangelist Kenneth Copeland, defending his preference for private jets, once described flying in commercial planes as ‘getting in a long tube with a bunch of demons.’ John supports this view because every time he gets on a plane he is swarmed by microscopic demons in the form of viruses and infections. This time the symptoms included an upset stomach and red eyes– hence his less-than-rosy view of the whole thing.

 

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The trip had been grueling. We’d left the previous afternoon from Lima, had stopped in Mexico City where we’d snatched five hours’ sleep and then had risen at 5 o’clock in the morning to go through a two-hour check-in process where travelers to the US were marched to a special area in the airport–and then marched back again because the lines were too long. We had to answer three ‘security questions’ and get a sticker on our passports, without which we wouldn’t be able to fly. By the time we’d checked in our bags and cleared security, the plane was already boarding. I had a pounding headache and gulped some Aspirin down with an illicit bottle of water as soon as I got into my seat.

I don’t remember too much about the flight except that I listened to supposedly relaxing lute music, planned a healthy 4-week menu and read To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a teen romance by Jenny Han. Breakfast was inadequate but made up for by three cups of coffee. John was already suffering torments with his stomach but for me, by our standards, it was not a completely bad flight. And yet, I felt uneasy.

The truth is, I never look forward to going through United States customs. There is something about US border policing that feels an awful lot like bullying. I’ve been in a lot of other countries and they don’t tend to do things this way; border guards may not be very friendly, but nor do they enjoy their jobs quite so much. In the past, US border guards have variously taken exception to our car, to Arabic letters in our passports, to our dog, to our queuing in different lines (because ‘This is America and American families stick together!’) and to our queuing in the same line (‘Ma’m, you are not a US citizen. The line for foreign nationals is over there.’). And every time this happens, not matter how unreasonably, I get horribly scared.

Part of it is that I’m an inherently nervous and guilty person. As far as I know I have not committed any actual crime, and yet I’m certain that Fate has a long-term prison sentence in store for me. It’s only a matter of time. As long as I have access to a word processor or pen and paper I should be able to survive. I’ll have an exercise regimen of star-jumps and man-style push-ups.

 

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My future

 

But I’d noticed, when applying online for my ESTA visa waiver, that there were more steps to follow than last time and that the officious cloth-eared legalese had exploded like a worsening infection. Not only was I required to be free of plague and terrorism, I also had to declare that I was not a member of ‘the foreign-language media’. This set off little alarm bells.

 

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Let me guess…this is some anti-Russian thing, right?

 

There were other factors contributing to this state of unease. Firstly, exhaustion. No part of plane travel is restful because you are waiting for every single stage to be over, and we’d been on ‘the road’ for 20 hours. Secondly, there are different queues for US citizens and visitors so John and I had to separate. Thirdly, there were a bunch of new computers on which you had to register yourself and a helpful volunteer insisted on showing me what to do. He helpfully pressed the ‘travelling alone’ button and before I could muster enough energy to correct him on that front, he produced a receipt and ushered me over to the line where we had to wait for a human border guard.

Standing in the long queue (the computers seemed to have slowed things down rather than sped them up), I had plenty of time to reflect on my error. I thought I should go back and re-do the machine thing so that it said I was ‘travelling with a family member’ rather than ‘travelling alone’. But there were dozens of people behind me. I decided just to bluff it out.

I am travelling alone. I am here visiting friends. I am here for three months,’ I coached myself. All of which, except for the ‘alone’ part, was true.

An airport usher directed me to wait in line for window 17. As I set my bags down at my feet—they were heavy because I had all my books in them—I heard a loud, derisive laugh. It was coming from the booth where my border guard sat. He was a blond young man with a pencil moustache and excessive energy. Some hapless traveler had said something he considered stupid and now he was loudly and publicly shaming the guy.

 

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Great,’ I thought. ‘Perfect. Of course I get this line.’ But then I told myself not to be so ridiculous. After all, look at the hundreds of people in the hall. Why would anyone want to go out of their way to bother with me, a boring English-speaking woman from an affluent country? It didn’t make sense. That’s what I told myself.

‘Next! Are you travelling alone today?’

‘Yes.’

‘Reason for travel?’

‘Tourism, visiting friends.’

‘How long are you here?’

‘Three months.’

‘Three months?’ he stopped and I very much feared he was going to have another derisive outburst. ‘What are you going to be doing here for three months?’

‘Um, er, well, you know, seeing my friends, looking at museums…’

‘Do you have a job?’

‘Uh oh, this is a tricky one,’ I thought.

‘Yes,’ I lied.

‘And what do you do?’ he asked in what sounded like a sarcastic tone.

‘I’m, ah, a writer,’ I blushed. Well, it was somewhat true.

 

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‘What is it that you write?’

‘Fiction and, uh,’ I realized this sounded pretty thin, ‘For money I write travel articles.’

‘Travel articles, huh?’

‘Yes. I travel a lot.’

‘And is your employer American?’

‘No, a New Zealander,’ I replied truthfully, because I am a New Zealander.

He thumbed through my passport, his nose wrinkled as if he smelled bad fish and finally got up from his seat.

‘Follow me,’ he said.

I followed him noting that he had a definite goosestep. We arrived at an interrogation room at the end of the corridor.

‘Do you have anything valuable in that backpack?’ he asked.

‘Um…I don’t…think so,’ I said, bemused.

‘Leave it here,’ he said, pointing to the floor outside the room.

‘OK,’ I said, wondering why. How long was I going to be in there? Were they going to get a bomb-defuser to explode my backpack?

 

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We entered the room, where a bunch of plastic chairs were arranged in front of a raised platform where the booths stood, each one occupied by a uniformed officer.

I sat down with a hot face and noted that there were three other people, all of whom had the same tense, hunched posture as I did.

I wondered what John was doing and whether he was worried yet.

So stupid,’ I said to myself. ‘Why didn’t you just say you were here with your husband?’

I opened my teen romance to pretend nonchalance. Lara Jean Covey’s pretend boyfriend comes over to her house and helps her make cupcakes for her little sister. You can tell that they will soon start to really like each other. Bitterly, I thought that the high-achieving gynecologist’s daughter would never find herself in this situation. It would never occur to her to tell a bald-faced lie to a border guard. What’s more, she’d definitely travel first-class and never even mention it in the book either. Lies, all lies.

 

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I overheard blondie briefing another officer.

‘She says she’s a writer and it looks like she’s planning to come right back again after three months.’

‘What a tosser,’ I thought, frowning at my book.

He stalked out and another be-gunned officer started talking loudly to another one about what he planned to have for lunch.

‘I think I’ll have some of those noodles they do over there, with the sweet chilli sauce, you know?’

‘Oh yeah, the chilli sauce.’

This conversation annoyed me. They didn’t have to rub it in our faces that they were so relaxed and carefree. In all likelihood, I was going to be marched off to the airport dungeon and all they could do was wiffle on about lunch. Such was their hard-heartedness! Probably the guards at Andersonville used to talk about biscuits and grits in front of their poor prisoners too.

‘Dolan!’ a woman’s voice called out.

I couldn’t see who had spoken –they were all hidden behind tall rostrums–so I went to the first one. The woman looked back at me, bored.

‘Right to the end,’ she said.

I went to the end. A young woman regarded me coolly.

‘How long are you planning to stay?’

‘Three months.’

‘And what is the purpose of your visit?’

‘Um, to see friends.’

‘What is their address?’

I fished my itinerary out of my purse and showed her the address.

‘It’s an Airbnb,’ I explained.

‘An Airbnb? I thought you were staying with friends.’ Her eyes narrowed.

‘No, we’re going to visit friends, not stay with them.’ I stopped myself from adding ‘Silly!’

‘“We”? Are you travelling with somebody else?’

Oops! Time to come clean…

‘Yes, I’m here with my husband. He’s a US citizen actually.’

‘Oh, you’re here with your husband?’

‘Yes. He had to go in a different line, that’s why I said I’m travelling alone…’ I laughed queasily.

‘I see. And does he live in the US?’

‘No, he hasn’t lived here for a long time.’

‘And what kind of work do you do?’

‘I’m a writer.’

 

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‘What kind of writing?’

‘I have a blog, About travel.’

‘And when you finish the three months, do you plan to come back immediately?’

‘What? No, of course not.’

‘Oh, because I thought…’

‘No.’

‘Oh, that’s all right then.’ Suddenly she was no longer a cop.

‘Just out of curiosity,’ she said looking at my passport pages, ‘When is the last time you were in your country?’

‘New Zealand? About two years ago.’

‘And what all are the countries you’ve been to?’

‘Oh, you don’t even want to know!’ I say breezily and immediately wonder at myself.

‘No way!’ she squealed, apparently delighted. ‘I’ve heard about people like you but I never met one before. I was just reading on Facebook about a project called Women Who Travel, it’s kind of an exchange program. It seemed really interesting. So, what’s your blog called? Can you write it down?’

I wrote it down for her, confused by this sudden change. Probably she wanted to double-check the website to see that a) it existed and b) I wasn’t here to ferret out state secrets or something. Nevertheless I felt rather flattered. It occurred to me that flattery is so much more effective than threats when it comes to intelligence gathering.

She stamped my passport and said, ‘You’re all done. Have a wonderful trip!’

‘Thanks,’ I mumbled.

I felt about ready to faint and was just walking away on jelly legs when another cop outside the interrogation room boomed, ‘Miss!’

Oh Christ, what now?

He had to do something to my passport.

Please let it be over, I prayed. He took a piece of paper out of my passport and finally I was free. I found my way to the baggage claim area, where John was sitting dispiritedly with all our checked-in luggage.

‘What happened?’ he said.

‘I got interrogated and—oh damn.’

‘What?’

‘I forgot my backpack. It’s back there.’ So, with dread in my heart, I had to walk back to the scene, past the border guard who’d flagged my case, past the ‘Miss’ cop and right up to the interrogation room itself. Luckily, when I pointed to the bag, they seemed to understand what I was there for and let me take it.

Once we were out of the airport and in a taxi, I felt an extraordinary sense of freedom. It was one of the most perfect days I’d ever seen, with a cool sea breeze playing in the trees, bright sunlight straight out of the children’s TV programs of my youth like Sesame Street and 3-2-1 Contact! How wonderful it was, after all, to be alive and in a 30-km traffic jam on the way to Brooklyn! 

 

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