“Escalator Eats Brooklyn Woman,” was a headline in the New York Post. I had just arrived, and I realised that in Manhattan, the unpleasant and the pleasurable are only a stone’s throw away. The newspaper gave gory details of how the Brooklyn woman’s mangled body was discovered in the machinery by a security guard. The horror was not so much the brutality of the encounter between woman and machine, but the matter-of-factness of the presentation, as if these matters were part of the quotidian. The thrust of the article in fact was the serious damage the woman’s body parts would have caused to the escalator and the difficulties the cleaning crew would face in removing the dead flesh from the gear mechanism. Another day, a few weeks later, was an even more audacious story of ‘Dog Devours Bronx Baby.’
Every time I visit New York, I’m left in a dizzying whirl of place and people, the eye never at rest. Part of it, I suppose, is linked to the sheer verticality of the place. Even when the movement is horizontal, the sight is always soaring, eyes grateful for having been let loose in the 3rd dimension. In Paris and London, there is a static quality of containment: you move along a road, dutifully punctuated by terrace houses; you arrive at a square; you throw an admiring glance at a statue of Nelson or Napoleon, and continue your journey. In Rome you do the same, only with a glass of wine in hand. New York despises the rest. Even a place as naturally tranquil as Central Park is a cauldron of insistent motion. A place to do something—jog, walk, mug, expend sweat, spit.
I was so intrigued by the rarefied beauty of the skyscrapers, it was hard to imagine that from up close some could be as ugly as houses in Delhi’s Greater Kailash. Walk up Fifth Avenue and see for yourself what the President-elect had done—Trump Tower. Step back and watch the black glass and brass tower rise to some 50 stories in geometric step backs, each spilling trees and plants, as if its builder, knowing the soaring man-made structure to be a thing of ugliness, wanted to hide it behind canopies of green. But the 50-storey glass buildings refuse to hide behind shrubbery. And the whole composition was as silly as an apartment block in Mumbai made to resemble a Greek villa. Inside, the monumental ugliness stretched to encompass a brass and chrome lobby, with walls of blotchy streaked red marble, something out of a ’50s Las Vegas casino.
On earlier visits, I had stayed in a sleazy Lower Westside hotel called the Brownstone; the place had the distinction of being in the city’s most dangerous neighbourhood. A week before I checked in, I read that a gang of teenagers had assaulted an old couple, and slit the man’s throat for a few dollars in his wallet. Another time, there was news of a 72-year-old woman who was raped in the 12th Street garbage dumpster. Once, while asleep in my fine 8x6 room with attached door and wall-to-wall flooring, there was a massive commotion on the floor below; a retired Vietnam veteran shot his wife, because she had finished all the hot water in the shower. What a city. After a few visits, I realized the Brownstone wasn’t in a dangerous neighbourhood, but the Brownstone itself made the neighbourhood dangerous.
Since those days, however, the place had changed. Everything was avant-garde and French now: Bistro, Le Terrace, L’ this or D’ that. Inside a gallery off 12th Street that called itself Delusion, spelt D’Lusion, I found a riveting display of braziers stuffed with crumpled paper, called ‘The Woman Stuffed’. The place was barely a few doors from where the Brownstone once stood.
I wasn’t sure if this was a high-fashion store or an art exhibit, and I wasn’t about to ask the two tight-shirted boys—one pink-haired, the other with lipstick—sharing a cigarette on a couch. Behind them, a series of obscenely fat mannequins supported see-through bras, each filled with a different assortment of breasts. One had shredded paper, another rose petals, another wet mud that leaked down to the naval. My favourite was the one filled with two large blueberry muffins, the blueberries creating a sexually lurid smear on the bra. I wanted to touch the blueberry nipples, and turned to check that no one was watching. The boys were in a deep kiss. But, just as I was about to, I noticed a sign on the floor saying ‘Please Touch’, and suddenly the urge to feel the bra vanished.
Thankfully, now that the builder of the Trump Tower is on his way to Washington, the architecture of New York City will have some reason to celebrate.
The writer is a Delhi-based architect and an artist