Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

October in New York 

In every country, bureaucracy has its own unique flavor. Every clerk abuses power in his own unique way. In Russia, they do it Gestapo style, something between a resentful school teacher and a labor camp officer. In Canada, they try to be your friends and sway you with politeness. In NY, they treat you like a convicted criminal. The first impression after stepping on American land: JFK airport is managed like a prison. Screaming and shouting orders. Hey, move on. Next. No trays on the floor. I said remove this tray from the floor immediately. I’m getting libertarian when it comes to airport security checks. Airport signs. No threats. No verbal abuse of TSA. No physical violence of any kind. NY subway. Assault of MTA employee is a felony with a maximum penalty of 7 years. Highway billboards remind that killing a road worker would cost you $7,500 and 15 years in prison. Everything has a price tag. There was arrest on the plane when it landed at O’Hare. Two questionable looking girls walked out by policemen from the backseats. Never ever in Europe have I seen arrest on a plane, and I took at least 118 flights.

NY subway. A guy in black huaraches and flower jacket is sharpening his long red-painted nails with a file. He has a 90s-style bag from Juicy Couture. There’s a tall and very muscular black man with tattoos wearing futuristic Neo-style sunglasses – reading a massive hardcover Bible, looking very worn out. A large homeless man occupying a row of 6 seats. Others look rather unremarkable. When I was in the US in 2012, my first serious trip abroad, everything looked so amazingly progressive. Now these billboards with ads for latest Netflix shows inspire nothing but boredom. I’ve seen it all before. America is losing its edge. Soon it will repeat the destiny of Japan: once at the frontier of innovation, gradually becoming just a blurred vision of the future it used to behold. Freeze-frame stagnation. Retro images of the future that never came. Something William Gibson likes to write about.

In the best case, America is on par with Europe. But to be honest, Europe seems to have more taste and more style (two weeks forward, the experience of landing at Munich’s Franz Josef Strauß airport was indeed an ecstatic experience). And here? No one’s even wearing cool sneakers here. It’s October and no one’s wearing trench coats. Chelsea is full of monuments dedicated to WWI: and trenches is the most innocent thing we can get out of Somme and Ypres, out of no man’s lands, poisonous mustard gases, and the war of attrition. In other towns, they mostly commemorate civil war, Lincoln and Sherman (was it the general who set Atlanta on fire?)

Surprisingly, NY doesn’t feel intimidating. Came to the most hipsterish bookstore at Manhattan, glass room with a very curated selection of supposedly rare stuff – just to see books about Pasolini, Cy Twombly, and Emil Cioran. Oh yes, these are the guys I spend evenings with. 10 years ago, visiting such places might have been intimidating, this time it feels normal.

Yesterday we went to Guggenheim: thanks God half of all floors were closed for installation of a new exhibition. Had to spend 40 minutes in a single room dedicated to Eva Hesse and her ‘Expanded Expansion’. Cheesecloth, oxidized latex. They let you touch a sample of rubber from 1998. That’s how you reflect on art properly, not like in MoMA where you get 3 hours to see 200,000 artworks. Permanent collection: a painting by Paul Gauguin, from Tahiti. Dans la vanillère, homme et cheval. Polynesian man with a horse in the jungle. The commentary says that Gauguin propagated ‘…a cliched and exoticized vision of Tahiti and its indigenous people. ‘…Gauguin’s compositions, in which gender and racial stereotypes abound, reflect his own colonialist positions’. Just a man with a horse in a vanilla grove. A non-binary bathroom on the ground floor: temporarily out of order.

MoMA was so bad. I really wanted to like it, but big galleries are a crime against art, the worst place to appreciate it. Oh, here’s a painting of Picasso about Holocaust and here’s a self portrait of Frida Kalo as a man. Other corner: a stuffed parrot by Joan Miró and a luminous theatre by Salvador Dalí. Next room: Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Monet’s Water Lilies. What do you make out of it? Just a short glimpse and a feeling of boredom and thoughts about dinner. Human consciousness is notorious for its ability for differentiation, capacity to focus attention on one single thing out of myriads of perception inputs. This is the mental faculty that galleries force us to lose. 

But at least there were rooms with abstract expressionists, a movement America can be so proud of. A rare canvas of Jackson Pollock that’s aesthetically pleasing (why did he always use such bad combinations of red, blue, yellow and black?). Franz Kline: much better. Lots of steel sculptures by David Smith. Bloody canvases of Kazuo Shiraga (the most expressive of all expressionists). Every self-respecting gallery has some Giacometti, and MoMA owns his ‘Palace at 4am’, a rare piece that’s not entirely about shadows. Dali, ‘Retrospective Bust of a Woman’, surprisingly impressive (perhaps he was meant to be a sculptor rather than a painter). But most importantly: a whole room dedicated to Duchamp with his original ‘3 Standard Stoppages’. A true moment of exhalation (you know how much it means to me). Another cracked glass, ‘To Be Looked at with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour’.

Some of the more modern stuff. Barbara Chase-Riboud, ‘Albino’ 1972, soft metal and rigid ropes. Description says it’s an artwork about race and class. I wish it didn’t have a description. Maria Martins, spiky tentacles of the ‘Impossible III’, the opposition and attraction. Yve Laris Cohen, his reconstruction of a burnt down theatre: old rusty pipes suspended under the ceiling of a pitch black room. 

We rent an Airbnb in a Latino neighborhood at Queens. Inside the house: many framed pictures of Bolivian family of the host. School graduation, church confirmation ceremony. On the book shelves: programming in COBOL, finding your way to God (I want to think that these two are interrelated). Lives of others. So distant from our own, their experiences untransferable. People on subway, going through their lives in utterly incomprehensible ways. In some sense, it gives a relief from the enormous weight of our own cultural predicament. The pressing need to conform with it. On top of fundamental values every culture erects a weird layer of second-degree attributes that somehow acquire meaning within a cultural space of certain territory. Celebrating meaningless holidays, learning to cook questionable food, going to Croatia for holidays, wearing Pandora jewelry for status, feeling awe towards brands and places you never felt awe for. In Russia, you would be frowned upon as a woman without professionally-done nails and eyelashes. In Czech Republic you would be expected to make trips to mediocre forests and own professional biking equipment at home.

But in foreign lands you realize that you can be anyone and anything.

The subway ride via the Flushing line comes with a gradual change of ethnic mix. Height of people getting shorter, clothes cheaper, faces more exhausted by existence. More baseball hats and puffer jackets (in October!), more sneakers from Sketchers, Kipling backpacks with those little monkey keychains. At the end of the line: almost no people passing for middle-class left around. America!..

If nature is nothing and culture is everything, then why do people refuse or blend in, and stick to those who share the same genotype. Why do people segregate themselves into ethnic communities? The phenomenon of diasporas breaks down the liberal dream of a multinational society. Such society must look like an airport security check anyway. The multitude of cultures and languages, and yet all I see are physical bodies, any distinctions blurred out, everyone so annoyingly human.

Corona Plaza. Flags of Colombia, Salvador, and Guatemala. Kids playing football. Latino music blasting from tent selling iced drinks of various colors and questionable origins. Food stands with fried corn and some strange canapés (meat on stick topped with… sausage on a tooth-pick?). Batches of cardboard on sidewalks, potato scrapes under feet, asphalt covered with pigeon crap and chicken bones. White and green bubbling foam mixing with streams of liquids at water drains, and I don’t want to know which substances these are. Street vendors selling hats and plush toys and those weird glowing things. It’s not supposed to be too bad, people are living here and doing their business and even their art. Wikipedia names such notable residents of Corona, Queens as Estée Lauder and a whole bunch of jazz saxophonists. Perhaps they had a strong incentive to create something a bit more beautiful than potato scrapes from those streets around.

And the centerpiece of the whole neighborhood is this weirdass-looking church, almost a Disney castle illuminated in fuchsia-pink light – like a nail polish from Oriflame I had at the age of 14. The phenomenon of private churches! There’s nothing like a central religious authority here, no local Vatican. Churches everywhere, churches competing with one another. Iglesia El Corban playing live music at 7pm messes. Seventh Day Adventist church distributing food for free. Soup kitchen from 12pm to 2pm, food pantry from 9am to 11am. And the monstrous church of Our Lady of Sorrow lit with this ridiculously hypnotizing neon pink light. Religion is a free market. I doubt if the working class residents of Corona, Queens have much leisure time to dedicate to figuring out the questions of metaphysics. So the institutions are always here, ready to supply people with prefabricated meanings, to impose their explanation frameworks of how to make sense of this world. Christianity is not even the most rational choice, just something that’s easily available from behind the corner. No need to study the history philosophy for 3 hours per day.

Queens. There’s not a single sign in English here, and we’re the only white people around. Or… in fact, how underprivileged are Slavs in the modern-day hierarchy of oppression? To get more comfortable in this hood, I’ll be thinking that I’m merely white-passing. Going deeper into the streets. Pawn shops. Loans for gold. Grocery stores accepting food stamps, laundromats full of people on Monday evening. The movement on sidewalk obstructed by trash bags and cardboard boxes. Orange peels, sour smells. The darkness will soon clean the scene and cover these artifacts of our laughable existence.

In the morning, we’re eating pumpkin donuts from Dunkin’. The sign at check-out says: no loitering, no littering, no playing games. All fun is prohibited here. McDonald’s next door has a long list of sugary drinks, yet in order to get coffee with milk you have to ask for a customized recipe. For lunch: ordered some cheesy fries from Shake Shack at the Madison Square garden, little mice running under the tables. Labradoodles everywhere, dog breed of the season. At Whole Foods everything is pumpkin spice flavored. Oat milk, cold brew, tea, candles. Werther’s original pumpkin spice soft caramels. Honey Mama’s cocoa truffle chocolate with sprouted pumpkin seeds, cinnamon and clove. Apple cider, one gallon bottle. Pumpkin patches, corn mazes and fall festivals are yet another attribute of American life that we need to culturally appropriate.

At the lower Manhattan where basic girls come to drink matcha lattes at Cafe Kitsune, I’m revisiting the empty basins of 9/11 monument, the foundation of WTC towers left overtly exposed like an open wound in the cityscape. Forever triggering to the workers of finance industry. One of the largest WTC tenants, Cantor Fitzgerald, lost 70% of its workforce in one day, and resumed operations in one week. The cautionary tale of what corporations do, and how replaceable employees are. But those who perished in smoke and fire will be forever commemorated with falling water. An ocean of tears, a never-ending pouring rain. Flashback to the installation I’ve seen at MoMA: Adrian Piper, ‘What will become of me’. Honey jars with hair and fingernails and an empty jar awaiting cremated ashes. This is what remains. And right next to it – Kiki Smith’s ‘Untitled’, 12 vases with bodily fluids: tears, blood, vomit, saliva. This is what ceases to remain. I’m a fountain of blood in a shape of a girl, Bjork was singing. A never-ending pouring rain thus appeals to me. Plus, the monuments with void as their centerpiece depict the human condition pretty well. Have you seen the Monument Aux Morts at the far-away corner of Pere Lachaise? It’s for standing in front of it paralyzed, thinking that life is just a constant flow of percepts stopping abruptly at this face of bottomless void. It seems to flow forever until it encounters this pitch-black nothingness at the end.

Going to the Wall Street. NYSE tape with stock quotes, all going down, down, down. Entrance of Equinox office sealed with a yellow police tape. They never fail to make things dramatic. It’s the Sukkot time, and a group of Orthodox Jews is walking around with a branch of artichoke and citron, asking pedestrians if they happen to be Jewish (I only wish!). If they encounter a Jew, they give them an artichoke and a blessing and ask to shake the citron. Jews have always been notoriously great at preserving their cultural lineage outside of Eretz Yisrael. Not all cultures are equally good at preserving their sacred symbols. On the Staten Island ferry, the only people excited to see the Statue of Liberty are Mexican families. Facetiming their relatives, taking selfies with kids. But what ends when the symbols shatter? The universe quickly turns meaningless. All that it contains is a middle-aged Mexican man in front of me on a ferry: attentively watching a painstakingly long TikTok video, some Latino woman’s laughing while recording a chihuahua with her 1.3 megapixel camera. That’s all there is, and there’s nothing more.

America looks like a default location, a place seen thousands of times in movies and games and perhaps dreams. It’s composed of little things. Trash bins and subway signs of distinct shape and particular font. Sidewalks made of concrete squares. Trucks that look like personal transport of Jeepers Kreepers: KW, Mack, and other brands you never heard of. Massive silver pipes of engine exhaust. NYPD vehicles with bulletproof fronts. Skyscraper design (New York is a showcase of good skyscraper design!). Beige bricks, brown glass. How come skyscrapers of the past used to feature materials other than concrete and glass? In 21st century, if you want variety, you make your skyscraper shaped like a swirl or a cucumber. Is this what they mean by the false nature of progress?

Anyways. 7 more states afterwards. Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio. Airports, trains, 1,000 miles on highways. SEPTA, Metra, CTA. Trip planning was a disaster. Flight from Philly to Chicago, few days of suffering in icy cold Madison, the epicenter of snow storm, then an 8-hour long drive to Michigan. After I learnt that it takes more time to get from Madison to Detroit by car than from Vienna to NY by plane, no distances seem terrifying anymore. Back to the East. Rent a beautiful car and go to the most rundown neighborhood of Detroit. Revisit Jim Jarmush’s shooting locations. Gilded age epoch, red brick mansions. Better crumbling than renovated. Abandoned assembly lines, demolition sites. I love the fresh smell of asbestos in the morning.

Surviving through snowstorms and listening to Midwestern emo in Wisconsin at the parking lot of Half Price Books. Loitering at the faculty of philosophy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Visiting Gilded age skyscrapers of the downtown Chicago, feeling like in the novel of Ayn Rand (what am I doing at the trading floor of CBOT on a Saturday morning?). Gary, Indiana: the most criminal city of America, past glory of the steel industry. After the US Steel left, half of the city stands abandoned. If in Wisconsin being outside of the car for more than 3 minutes was impossible due to extreme weather conditions, in Indiana it’s mainly due to safety concerns. You don’t want to loiter in a neighborhood where the stores with guns and ammo are part of everyday life.

Highways. Weirdass billboards. Hurt or injured? Sarkisian & Sarkisian is here to help. Yes, hurt, very upset. Listening to Pink Floyd while passing by the burning fires of safety relief valves of refineries glowing in the darkness. Chicago Sky Bridge Road. Watching the skyline, demonic Willis tower, and the soundtrack couldn’t be more perfect: a Ukrainian march accompanied by guitar of David Guilmore. We’ll take that bent-down tree and raise it up, and we shall cheer up our glorious Ukraine. Well, such songs are precisely the way how nations are formed. The strangest thing in music are patriotic songs of places that you have no relation to whatsoever. Just listen to Vera Lynn to feel awe for Churchill’s Britain. Auf wiedersehen sweetheart.

What else to write about? Excuse me for not writing about truly important things like how to fix liberalism or how to arrange political program for the Russian government of the future. This time you’ll have to stick to descriptions of immediate phenomenological experience of the author, no matter how ridiculous it is. I’m torn. Let’s go on. Cancelled flight, negotiating replacement. Amsterdam? Amsterdam layovers are usually worth it: you take a train from Schiphol, and eat a herring hot-dog with a Dutch flag on a toothpick somewhere at the square of Museumplein. But this time I didn’t feel like it. Whatever. Didn’t even know the airline and destination before the airport clerk performed a check-in. Lufthansa, Star alliance? Was supposed to arrive at Vienna, now going to Munich. 

Weirdass A340-600 with two decks. Passing above Dachau (they always have the strangest selection of cities to display on these in-built seat screens). Flight attendants going to and fro the plane isles remind me of nurses serving severely disabled patients. For 8 hours you get constrained to a chair losing any ability to move, among the rows of other cripples that need to be attended. In fact, it’s not too different from an office job. Had a very good cry before landing: total catharsis, very satisfying. Another line at the EU customs check: walking into it confidently with the red swollen eyes (can anything have more class?). How beautiful and polished Germany looks. Munich, 9am: is it the rosy pink glasses or those misty cabbage fields along the S-bahn rail tracks look like paradise?

Unfortunately, the final destination was Prague. And the thing I hate the most are city outskirts surrounding Prague airport, where gradually, kilometer by kilometer, the dreary everyday reality reminds you of its existence, reentering your life. Another Eastern European winter ahead. Got an Uber and tried not to look at stuff below the roofs and the sky. Vacations serve one single purpose to remind one that traveling is pure suffering – and lose the desire to leave home for at least the following 3-4 months. But what if it all was just a limbo and home is a different kind of hell?

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