Sunday, July 22, 2012

'Aṭlāl (Weeping over the Ruins)

I'm feeling very nostalgic for New York, and am trying to cram in all the things I've neglected to do in the last two years before I head out to Philadelphia for my fellowship year. One of those things was a visit to the Renwick Ruin on Roosevelt Island. It used to be a smallpox sanitarium and later became a mental asylum, the one where Nelly Bly got herself committed to write her famous expose.

The first time I visited Spain, one of the graduate students in the residence where I was staying asked me whether it was true that Americans have a complex about not having history. I assured him that we do. In truth, I can't speak for anyone but myself. And it's not so much that I have a complex about not having history as much as I have a complex about not having really good ruins. It's amazing, then, that it's taken me this long to go visit. Going out there today was part of beginning to restore my work-life balance, which has been seriously out of kilter in the work direction basically since I started graduate school, but even more intensely so in the last two years.

I'm not pleased with the photography I did today. I could blame it on the light — I went about ninety minutes too early because I didn't really know where I was going and didn't want to get caught in some random park on some random island with random ruins that I didn't know my way around and potentially get lost in the dark — and I could blame it on the fact that there is a huge fence about five yards away from the façade — that I thought about hopping but decided that I've not been vaccinated against enough things to risk it — but the fact of the matter is that I'm out of practice and getting used to new equipment (finally switching to digital from film). And I made rookie mistakes too, like misjudging the light and using a polarizing filter when I shouldn't have, and was lazy about bringing a tripod, when this kind of work clearly calls for it.  But part of what I wanted to do today was to start getting myself back into the habit of grabbing my camera and going out with it. I wasn't shooting for great today. And anyway, the apartment where I'll be living in Philly is down the street from another very unusual ruin, so I'll have lots of chance to practice.

Roosevelt Island is really different from Manhattan, even though it is technically a part of it. It's quieter and feels like a small town in the way that people are comfortable in just striking up a conversation with a stranger. I met a woman named Olga, who moved to Roosevelt Island four years ago and who was out walking her dog. It was her first time in four years on the Island visiting the ruins at its southern tip. She just came over and, after checking that this ruin did used to be the hospital, that her memory of the space was correct, told me about her history with the place:

"My sister and I used to come visit my aunt here. She wasnt okay in her head. Well, she was, really. Just that — I dont know if you believe in this but — the spirits got to her. We used to take a boat from — my mother used to live, still lives in — the Lower East Side."
z         "What do you remember it being like?" I asked her.

"I was afraid," she said. "My aunt always used to say, 'You look so pretty today.' And then the other people would say, 'Come here.'" 
She squinted up her eyes and beckoned with her hand, in memory and imitation.
"And I was always afraid. There were a lot of doctors in white watching. My elder sister, she used to come all the time and bring my aunt apples. She wasn't afraid. My aunt, she died three years ago. Rest in peace, wherever she is. She took her last breath with us. We took care of her, three sisters. She didn't want us, but we took care of her in the end. I guess life's like that."

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