We’re in Harlem now, but we’re heading to the Bronx. Somewhere up north, we’ve heard. We’re a group of strangers, and we’re standing on a street corner waiting for a bus. Not so unusual, maybe, for New Yorkers: the standing, the strangers, the waiting. But the street corner is. Strange. We, it seems—maybe most of us—don’t belong here. But we won’t be here long. We’re going to the Bronx. The South Bronx, if we must be specific. And we must: we’re New Yorkers.
The South Bronx. The Bronx is Burning Bronx. The Bronx Bombers, the Bronx Zoo, the...well, that’s all I’ve got. That’s where my knowing the Bronx ends. (And most of that I got from the movies.) But I didn’t know that then, on that street corner, a stranger waiting with strangers for a Bronx-bound bus. I didn’t know then that I knew not wherefore the South Bronx. And, further, that it—he? she?—didn’t know me. And I didn’t know really—hadn’t thought that hard about it—why I should care.
We’re going to the theater, we think. We’re savvy, though. We’ve been to the theater before! Hundreds of times, thousands! We know what to do, how to operate. The theater’s on a bus? Still, we know what to expect. We’ve been to the theater on a bus before, once; we’ve been to the theater walking; we’ve been to the theater in a field, in warehouses, on a boat, even. We know the theater. We dare the theater, we say, “Surprise us.”
The bus comes and we, this particular huddled mass, we troop on. Going on buses is fun, that much we can agree on. Do you like the back? Me? No. I like the front. Here? Shall we? Yes, here is good. Plush seats, clean window, good view through the windshield. I like to sit close to the driver. Don’t you? When I was little I wanted to be a bus driver. Didn’t we all?
So, we get situated. We situate ourselves here in this Bronx-bound bus, with this group of strangers, and this bus driver, and this person here, this person who is speaking to us. This person is our tour guide. And these things here, these are our headphones. Put them on. Listen. And while you listen, look. It’s that easy. Welcome.
This is the Foundry Theatre’s The Provenance of Beauty.
“OK, Mary. We’re ready to go.”
The bus driver’s name is Mary. How nice. Pleased to meet you, Mary. We’re ready to go.
I’ve always thought the phrase “the sounds of the city” is a cliché. It’s one of those sayings that serves to sanitize, to poeticize the city without using poetry; a meaningless snippet that plays at meaning. Or that’s what I thought before I listened to the city the way a bus listens to it. A bus breathes, we all know—letting out its hot, noxious air, spitting and sputtering on its way through the city streets. But it seems, our bus at least, also inhales; it breathes as deeply in as it does out. It’s in conversation with the city around it and we, a part of it for now, breathe with it.
Provenance. Noun. 1. Place of origin; derivation. 2. The history of the ownership of an object, especially when documented or authenticated.
So the question appears to be, as much as anything, not only where did this Bronx beauty come from, but who owns it; who owns it now; who owned it before; and who will own it in the future.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,
welcome to the Bronx.”
Occasionally, the tour guide’s soft, quietly amplified voice brings me out of my reverie. Enough, at least, to realize I’m in reverie. But, wait, there have been other voices, too. Haven’t there been? Whispering in my ear? A man and a woman with too many beautiful, confounding words; too many questions. And here I am, whether through rabbit- or worm-hole, in the South Bronx. But where are the others? Those strangers from the street corner? They’ve been replaced by other others, it seems, on this bus, riding along, some people close to me, reminding me. In place of my former cohort, here is (how strange!) Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, sitting knees pressed together. And behind them the poet John Ashbery, who loves this kind of thing, and that there—the older gentleman—that is renowned urbanist Lewis Mumford, next to Jane Jacobs, of course, and behind them, the Europeans: the artist Joseph Beuys, and the sociologist? Gaston Bachelard, sitting quietly aloof. How strange to look back inside my bus, to see it now filled with the new faces of old friends. They must have entered as I looked out on a city, on part of a city, that is both mine and so distinctly not-mine. Did anyone else see these friends of mine sneak into my line of sight, glimpse-caught via the rear view mirror? No, but it must be true that those street corner strangers are still here, too, and that they are convening now with their old friends—their Steins, their Ashberys, even their Bachelards—and that we are all trundling along, together and separately, on a voyage that is as much internal as external, public and private.
A voice in my ear: “A long time ago, before Jesus, someone said, you need to be responsible for your own passage, all this life, all this living.” And outside the bus: so much living, so much life. How can I account for it? How can I carry the responsibility of now floating so slowly by? Part of me yearns to be outside again with them, with the people I see scurrying here and there, though I know I feel safer in here, removed, with the clean glass window between us, and the wheels of the bus turning underneath, and these good, old, learned friends sitting beside me, anchoring me.
Beuys pipes up to tell his story—he’s got a million of them, and this one’s a classic—about the first time he visited America, to do the piece in the cage with the coyote, about how he didn’t want to step foot on American soil (after all, he was there for the coyote). So his friends picked him up at JFK in an ambulance, took him to the gallery, then returned him to the non-space of the airport. No boots on the ground for Beuys. That’s how I feel. I’ve never been to the South Bronx. I’m there now, but I still haven’t been. And maybe I never will be. Sometimes, it seems, they don’t want me here, and sometimes, it seems, I don’t want me here either. As the voice in my ear says, “It is easier to buy the present than to live all the days you need to arrive there.”
Out the window, what are we seeing? An old, disused “Gentleman’s Club,” the ConEd substation disguised as a row of suburban condos, the Farberware Factory, parks (new and old), graffiti (sanctioned and not), the sewage treatment plant, a jail, a theater turned Pentecostal church, street lights, concrete, chain link fences and razor wire, the surrounding traffic, the people, their bodies, their lives, their distance, their closeness.
Now the tour guide is quoting Neruda in Spanish, then English, “Pardon me, if when I want/To tell the story of my life/it’s the land I talk about/This is the land.” And for me, how is it that Neruda evokes Ashbery, my poet of New York City, remembering quizzically, chuckling: “It wasn’t the hole in the landscape/that gladdened us, it was the invitation to the weather/to drop in anytime.” And from here Mumford, whose landscape was a cityscape, agrees, stretching: “The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theater and is the theater. It is in the city, the city as theater, that man’s more purposive activities are focused.” And so, speaking of plays and of landscapes, Stein rejoins:
The landscape has its formation and as after all a play has to have formation and be in relation one thing to the other thing as the story is not the thing as any one is always telling something then the landscape not moving but being always in relation, the trees to the hills the hills to the fields the trees to each other any piece of it to any sky and then any detail as any other detail, the story is only of importance if you like to tell or like to hear a story but the relation is there anyway.
Then, all of a sudden, there is Wilder, blowing his whistle: “All right. So much for the inside of the car. That’ll be enough of that for the present. Now for its position geographically, meteorologically, astronomically, theologically considered.”
And, yes, outside the bus, still the Bronx, but somehow expanded, not quite to distortion, but situating itself now, in high relief. Inside the bus, our tour guide, a liminal voice: “Ladies and Gentlemen, here we are. Here I live. Here is the whole human earth—one face becoming another—all this life building the day.”
Shortly, though we don’t see it coming, she will get out of the bus, and we will watch from inside the bus as she walks slowly down the block, keys jingling in hand, and she will arrive at her door, and she will go inside. And we will keep on, inside our bus, looking out, smiling sometimes at what we see, sometimes frowning, sighing, shaking our heads, our fists, our hearts, remembering, searching, listening, and sometimes failing to hear, or hearing the wrong things, paying not enough and then too much attention, trying (we hope) to get it right.
And now there is a new voice, not foreign, yet wholly different coming forth. It’s Mary, the bus driver.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,
welcome back to Manhattan.”
The Provenance of Beauty runs every Saturday and Sunday, 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. through October 25. Please visit thefoundrytheatre.org for more info.
JAKE HOOKER is a Brooklyn-based live artist. His work has been seen at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, the Bushwick Starr, the Chocolate Factory, and HERE, among others. He is pursuing a PhD in the theater program at the City University of New York's Grad Center.