Diarist

Barbara Probst Solomon
New York Alfresco
Autumn 1992

THURSDAY: Three European pals arrive. Belli says, “Look how blue the New York sky is—it reminds me of my childhood in Madrid.” Rosa nudges her. “Did you notice the doorman picked up our bags? Just like my childhood in Barcelona.” Josefina sighs: “No traffic jams—like Europe used to be.”

FRIDAY: We hit the Cloisters. Offhandedly I point out that Philippe de Montebello had called it the world’s most coherent example of medieval architecture of that sort. Their silence forces me to remember that George Clay Barnard, an eccentric American sculptor, sort of stole a lot of it—it was just lying there, doing nothing in the Pyrenees—and brought it to Manhattan before the First World War. Eventually John D. Rockefeller created the present Cloisters to house it.

The four of us stroll though it, flagship extraordinaire of Manhattan’s gallant Hudson River, and I mull over Montebello’s statement—how can transplanted stone be a better version than the original? The unity of the medieval world depended on a totality consisting of cities, churches, walls, fortresses, monasteries, and mountains—even the best reassembled fragments end up out of context, orphaned. Why bother to strain for fake purity when our bastard achievement is so glorious? The Cloisters belongs to the same transatlantic inspiration as the Newport cottages and the Statue of Liberty. Why not give this stuff a name—why not “Euroamer”? Just as the fourteenth-century fusion of Arab architecture and Andalusian artisans created Mudejar and the marvel of the Alcazar, so did the quirky combination of medieval architecture, Rockefeller money, and Clay, the eccentric American wanderer, coalesce into our great “Euroamer” Hudson River monastery. I watch the small boats chugging toward the downtown docks. Dreams, commerce, and art have always slept well together.

SATURDAY NIGHT: We go for a swim at the Manhattan Plaza Health Club at 43rd Street and Tenth Avenue. My club is in an artists’ and writers’ housing development. On my taxi ride over, the cab stops for one police drug bust, one ethnic parade, and one street fair.

My Spanish friends are awed by the number of pools in Manhattan. They are impressed by the way the pool’s glass dome opens up; its spread of outdoor patios, hydrangeas, and tennis club: all this beneath a starlit Manhattan night. A tango party is going on. We watch a spectacular couple a la Tango Argentina shed their dancing clothes down to their bathing suits. They dive into the pool. I sip my drink, look across the patio at the tennis players in their whites playing night tennis under moons of light, the Empire State Building and downtown skyline in the background. Some Manhattan nights just have a blaze.

SUNDAY MORNING: Josefina and Belli are surprised that I claim Harlem as my roots. We visit La Marqueta in El Barrio. I tell them about my grandmother, who lived there at the turn of the century. As we proceed northward, I hear myself narrating the lost history of the city, as though its narration is one and the same as my relatives’. It occurs to me that, counting my progeny, my family has been hanging around the same blocks on the Upper East Side for five generations. Why is the stable population of Manhattan, its small-town quality, so little noticed? No Southerner would let go of terrain so lightly.

MONDAY: We hit the shops: thrift, boutique, department store, stationery, housewares, and Lower East Side. In the afternoon we study my pile of catalogs. They order things from the ones that ship to Europe.

THURSDAY: Josefina, Rosa, and Belli say goodbye. “New York has terrible problems,” I say. Rosa grips my hand: “So does Europe. But,” she continues firmly, “if a European country had something as good as Manhattan, it would be a national treasure.”

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