Invisible Cities

10 01 2008

“Isn’t it this building over here?” GB caught my sleeve as I headed for the awning that said National Arts Club. He pointed to the building two doors down, on the corner.

“No, that says SVA. And it’s number 17.”

I turned back for the brownstone with the awning as GB checked the post-it note in his hand. A boy in a white watched us from behind the many tiny panes of a mahogany door, a double row of buttons on his jacket gleaming gold.

“But this building doesn’t look like it has eight floors.”

We looked up. Between it and number 17 on the corner was another brownstone, with no apparent entrance, where on a narrow balcony people were seated and chatting on wrought iron chairs despite the winter rawness of the air. Three neat sets of tall white double doors opened on a room beyond, from which lazy revolutions of unseen ventilation swept shadows across the beveled glass wedges of the fanlights. Despite being on the third floor at best, it resembled the kind of reception we were looking for, though ours was much more sparsely attended and subdued, at least when we arrived. Past the boy in white, past a marble stairwell where were gathered portraits closely as those of a single family, between a pair of handsomely paneled former phone booths, gutted so wiring hung out, and the restrooms with their stained glass and elaborately lettered plaques: a right, a left, another left, and a narrow elevator at the back of which an operator waited on a bench. The whitewashed outside and porthole gave no hint of an interior appointed in the same lavish style—gilt-framed mirror and striped wallpaper—as the maze of low-ceilinged downstairs rooms that a sense of courtesy had ushered us through too quickly for all but glimpses: a pool table covered in dusty vinyl, oil paintings of the well-heeled, folding chairs set out before a podium, antimacassars and wainscoting. It was easy to believe the rooms, each unlike the next in dimension, had all been individually conceived and erected, but hard to think how they had ever been fitted wall-to-wall together into anything like the box of a building, much less that anything short of a labyrinth connected them.

The eighth floor gallery itself was spruce and the refreshments muted: plastic tumblers of white and Beck’s in bottles. Glass took the place of balustrade on a narrow balcony above the main room, where enlargements of comic panels provided a background to framed original pages. Cleanliness is next to modernity. Somehow we wound up with a view, through a massive muslin-curtained window, of the locked and gated park. Yet another of those city spaces no one would suspect exists.

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