Saturday, February 16, 2013

where once, where now, where then

It must have been in the late 1960's that my friend William B. McKechnie III had a girlfriend named Kathy. Bill and I had become friends during a couple of years serving as army linguists in Berlin. He always insisted that the middle initial "B" in his name did not stand for anything: Somewhere in his lineage, someone had decided that if rich folks could have middle initials and/or middle names, life could appear richer if he had one too.

Coming to America
Kathy worked for the New York Historical Society and somehow arranged for Bill and me to accompany a Parks Service photographer on a trip to Ellis Island, the installation where millions of immigrants had been processed at the turn of the century. Bill and I were more enthusiastic than skilled photographers and we jumped at the chance to be granted access to a then-restricted venue ... one with so much history.

But of course there was no one there. Rooms with vastly high ceilings led to hallways with single rooms or offices left and right. Everywhere, the once-strong paint was peeling and the floors were littered with bits and pieces of neglect. Whatever discoveries Bill and I might have expected quickly slipped away. There was light and a seemingly-endless choir of shadows, but the littered emptiness was entirely up to us. We both shot a lot of pictures, most of which were as uninspiring as the tattered mattresses that lay here and there. Ellis Island was chock-ablock with something, but whatever that something was lay invisible and silent no matter how many corners we turned in search of some iconic discovery.

Ellis Island
Ellis Island then was just a tattered has-been in the same way that the sparkly island museum of today is just another sort of has-been. Memory and expectation built vast mind-castles for Bill and me. Memory and expectation play a role in today's refurbished halls at Ellis Island. History is so delicious in the mind ... the where-once colliding with the where-now and looking forward to the where-then.

How many things are like Ellis Island, I wonder? Honestly, I think a lot ... if not all.

When I was younger, I used to dream of going to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet and crash and dance. And to Afghanistan where Silk Route traders once flowed together from a hundred lands to the east and left bits and pieces of a hundred delicious cultures behind. And to the Orkney Islands in the far north of England because ... well, because the name, like Scapa Flow, was music in my mind, magical ... and because it was magical in my mind, it must be magical in itself, mustn't it?

How many things are like that ... dreamed of and yet, upon arrival, there is nothing there ... or not exactly nothing, but certainly not the something that had been dreamed of.

Marriage, employment, friendship or enmity, wealth and possessions, wisdom or ignorance ... the dreams teem and titillate and inspire, but upon arrival ... well, things may be wonderful indeed, but you've got to admit they are not exactly what was expected. The castle was beautiful and worth the trip, but the problem that arises is that the castle does not exist. There are just the particulars on which, like as not, to construct yet another castle.

Where once ...
Where now ...
Where then....

None of this is meant to disparage or dismiss the yummy-yummies that crop up in the mind. Just think how boring life might be without them. But it is to suggest that noticing may be worth the price of admission. The castles rise up, the adventure begins, and upon arrival, well, what is that like? There are the particulars of an old mattress or a new lollipop ... just the particulars of what was then, what is now and what will be, all of them rolled together in a single breath ... this particular breath ... which, when you think about it, is pretty neat.

As an Internet buddy of mine used to say, "Wherever you go, there you are."

It's not exactly something, but it's not exactly nothing either. But whatever it is, I don't imagine it's something anyone could photograph or write or know.

Where once...
Where now ...
Where then...

Over and over, easy as an exhalation.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Adam. You are a lyrical writer -- perhaps in spite of yourself.