I’d like to add to B.C. Smith’s recent and wonderfully appropriate description of a large cross section of us to include this: those who don’t own cars. Sure, it doesn’t sound as poetic as all that, but think of all the poetic possibilities it opens up. I mean what it literally, physically, opens us up to, what it puts us in front of, or next to, or behind, or inside of, in our attempts to get from here to there. I know getting around can be a pain in the ass, but it means we can’t take anything for granted and you have to figure that we’re somewhat better people for it. Really, isn’t it great that we have to think about the weather, that we have to notice if it’s sunny or raining or snowing and actually take that into account? I’m not kidding here! We’re not farmers, sure, but at least we pay some kind of attention; we react with some engagement to each day. There’s something nice in that. And yes, all right, I am going to admit, I have been blatantly paraphrasing my girlfriend here. Though wait a minute, nobody knows that except her. So actually, never mind, disregard what I’m saying. But not what she’s saying, through me. Hmmm. Makes sense? No? Okay, wait, I’m gonna talk about Flaubert now; that one might throw her off our trail.
But no, it probably won’t, because you know Flaubert, he digs it too. In the beginning of his little book November the narrator speaks about the autumn, about returning from his long and daily walk through the frozen fields and meadows. He steps over ice-filled ditches. He jumps over snow-drifts in one leap. The crazy bastard even sits down on the ground. All right, now I don’t care if this isn’t his best book, I still find some inspiration there. Go take a walk, in any weather. You’ll find some landscape that reflects your own. And even better if you have to take that walk to get somewhere, cause there you go — that takes care of motivation. You’re going outside anyway! Look at some building that you pass each day, and then look at it again.
For me it’s the Kings County Savings Bank, on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Broadway. I bike by this every time I ride into the city. It’s no longer a bank but now houses the not for profit Williamsburg Art and Historical Center. Which means it’s open to the public, as both an art gallery and a performance space. The second and third floor are each one large, open room. The first floor supposedly retains its original gas chandeliers and carved woodwork, though that one isn’t open to the masses for corroboration. Still, it’s the exterior that really makes the place. The bank was completed in 1867, in a French Second Empire style, at a time when overt displays of wealth were all the norm. Hence this bank built in the model of a millionaires house. But that makes total sense, doesn’t it? I can just picture looking out that round window in the mansard roof, surveying your estate, your manicured grounds and frozen meadows. Anyone up for taking a walk? Or at least a ride in the phaeton? Nah, I think I’ll stick around here and whip my servant instead.
Although this is the Second Empire we’re talking about, not the ancien regime. Maybe there was less whipping going on by then. Flaubert would know; he wrote his best books during the Empire’s heydey. We’re talking Napoleon III here people, you know, uh, rockin and rollin. Send the Hapsburg prince Maximillian to Mexico in an attempted coup, as part of a grand scheme to reintroduce monarchical rule to Central and South America? Yeah, sure, sounds good. Start a disastrous war with Prussia that ends in utter defeat and exile in England? Um, whatever. Napoleon II must be rolling over in his grave! But I don’t know. Old number three probably wasn’t that bad. He did spend some time in New York in the 1830s, again as an exile, this time before he became emperor, when his name was simply Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. What did he get up to while he was here? Nobody knows. He probably walked around a lot. Maybe he noticed the lack of Second Empire architecture. I gotta do something about that, he said.
(Originally posted Feb. 6th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)