May 7, 2012 | by Jillian Steinhauer
I’m sitting in an apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens. It’s a nice apartment, with decidedly un-Ikea furniture and mild-mannered art on the walls. It feels well kept but welcoming, gently used. The room I’m in is a classic New York living/dining-room combo, its zones delineated by, on the one hand, a multicolored wood table and, on the other, a sleek white couch.
The couch looks surprisingly comfortable, but I have no idea if it is; I’m sitting back-to-back with it, on a triangular block of foam. There’s a semicircle of these foam stools filling the room’s neutral territory and six people sitting with me. As we wait in awkward and anticipatory silence, I notice the sunlight streaming in from the windows. It glosses the shiny floors, which stay that way, I assume, because everyone who enters this apartment has been told to remove her shoes, just like in my home growing up.
I don’t know who lives here. According to a map the Guggenheim has given me, this is “Erin’s House.” Erin is nowhere to be found, but she has generously loaned out her living/dining room for a few weekends in April and May, for a project called Stillspotting. As its name implies, the project is a search for still spots—quiet spaces, moments of respite, refuge from chaos—in New York.
More specifically, though (and continuing the trend of imaginary words), this installment of the program is called “Transhistoria.” A rough translation of that might be “across history.” It’s the third edition of Stillspotting that the Guggenheim has produced, in the third borough. For “Transhistoria,” the architects at Solid Objectives – Idenburg Liu (SO – IL) commissioned essays on the theme of stillspotting from six Queens writers and chose six spaces throughout Jackson Heights, one of the city’s (and country’s) most diverse neighborhoods. They then chose actors and readers to bring the writing to life inside the various spaces.
Visitors to “Transhistoria” are given a map with a brief legend and access to four still spots of their choosing. Thus equipped, they set out into Jackson Heights, wandering the streets in search of stories.
My first stop is Erin’s house, where a woman with ruddy brown skin sits at the table and soon begins to read Ishle Yi Park’s “Ohm. Home.” She seems a little uncomfortable with the language, tripping over some of the accumulated words that layer and build in unpredictable ways. She tells us afterward that Park is a former Def Jam poet and poet laureate of Queens, but it doesn’t sink in until weeks later, when I see an excerpt in writing, that “Ohm. Home” is actually a poem.
Park grew up in Queens to Korean immigrant parents, and she writes about trying to move beyond “the squinty-eyed, polite / racism” and find calm there, “listening / to that old man / with his wooden harps / humming beneath the grates / on 74th & broadway” or sitting on a rooftop behind McDonald’s. But though she has “Queens tattooed on my heart,” she ultimately leaves, finding peace instead in the most stereotypically peaceful of all places: Hawaii. I take this as an omen. Erin’s house is wonderfully quiet and subdued, but I leave with the sense that real stillness can’t be found here.
At La Gran Uruguaya Café, the still spot is outside. This is a questionable choice, as the café sits on a stretch of Thirty-seventh Avenue filled with jewelers, pizza places, ninety-nine-cent stores, bodegas, delis, liquor stores, arepa, and ice sellers—and people constantly spilling in and out of them. It’s one of many loud, busy streets I find in Jackson Heights; I’m sure the sixty-five-degree-and-sunny weather helps with that.
I ask the reader, an actor named Jeremy, about the sidewalk decision, and he tells me that the still spot had been inside the previous week; however, there’s also a TV inside, which had been showing soccer games simultaneously, forcing him to keep one eye on the screen and time his story around periodic bursts of “GOAL!” plus accompanying cheering.
After a few minutes of chatting and eating ices, Jeremy and I decide that no one else is coming, so we settle in for a one-on-one reading. The piece is by Roger Sedarat, titled “My Dinner with Joe and Steffi.” It’s almost the opposite of Park’s “Ohm. Home”—a postmodern story about the search for a story that truly represents the spirit of Jackson Heights.
Jeremy has the essay almost memorized, and Sedarat’s writing is so heavily first person that at times I forget I’m not listening to the author himself. “Here, I belong to so many others that in a sense my true peace resides in a lack of firm connection,” Jeremy says (as Sedarat). This author/reader identity confusion gives me a sense of intimacy. It helps alleviate the fractured, artificial experience of listening to an actor read an essay by a writer about a search for authenticity in the neighborhood I’m currently sitting in, surrounded on the sidewalk by that very authenticity but not participating in it.
Sedarat writes about “finding a more profound truth, a greater stillness, in art.” I embrace this. “There is stillness in the disruption and vice versa,” he says. This I’m less sure of. I set off from La Gran Uruguaya Café thinking about the difference between stillness and quiet and eating a pineapple-flavored frozen ice.
The serenity room at Elmhurt Hospital has tacky floor panels with images of grass and stones. A fountain covers one wall, and above it sits a TV screen projecting benign images of nature—except there’s constant static washing disruptive ripples over shots of flowers and open fields. The room is also severely air-conditioned.
Despite all this, it’s a well-named space. As at Erin’s house, stillness here means quiet, and the sound of cascading water offers a cocoon in which you can settle and lose yourself. My narrator reads in a gentle yet animated voice, as if telling children a bedtime story.
His tone matches the simple language of the text, an essay called “Up from Oaxaca” by the chaplain of the hospital, Fr. William Alan Briceland. This is not the postmodernity of Sedarat or the poetry of Park, and with good reason: Briceland tells the moving story of a former patient named Agustín Martinez, an immigrant from Mexico who survived a terrible car accident. Martinez spent months recovering in the hospital, undergoing eight surgeries on his arms and legs, plus four more after his discharge.
But more than the physical damage, Martinez suffers from psychological trauma. “His life is now divided into before the accident and after the accident,” the narrator says, and I find myself nodding in comprehension, tears in my eyes as I think about a friend still recovering from a car accident nine months ago and the way my own life has been split into before and after.
Martinez has managed to find some peace at home—“His room is the still spot in his life”—but he doesn’t yet feel whole. I’m reminded that stillspotting is an ongoing, endless process and that our refuges are often provisional, transitional. On to the next one.
I’ve finally found the quieter streets of Jackson Heights. I hadn’t planned to venture this far north, but a volunteer told me that the garden at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church was beautiful and not to be missed. She was right.
The garden is an expanse of grass dominated by a stunning, pink-blossomed tree (a dogwood?). Its low-hanging branches are covered with flowers and leaves, and dozens upon dozens of petals litter the ground, like pink confetti. A triangle of benches occupies a cozy spot underneath the tree, along with the requisite foam stools; I fight an urge to skip, rather than walk, to them.
A middle-aged, blonde-haired woman delivers my final story, “At Home in the New World,” by Maria Terrone, a poet and lifelong resident of the neighborhood. Terrone describes the thoughts that pass through her head as she navigates the “choreographed chaos” of the sidewalks: “Six out of ten people I pass on the street in Jackson Heights were born in another land … Did they flee famine? killing fields? violent relationships?” She captures the rush I had felt earlier on the busy streets as Indians, Argentines, Ecuadorans, and Bangladeshis passed by me. For Terrone, the way to make peace with the neighborhood is through food: “In short, food equals home,” she writes.
As the narrator tells her story of bonding with a neighbor over dumplings, I notice the sound of a bus stopping on a nearby street. Its loud gasp breaks my concentration, followed by the screams of children playing nearby in the garden. I’m annoyed by these interruptions; I blame them for preventing me from achieving a zenlike state in such a gorgeous place.
But as Terrone’s narrator talks about cooking as a way of centering herself, I realize that seeking out complete, external tranquility is an absurd goal in New York City. Our only hope, I think, is stillspotting as a state of mind.
Jillian Steinhauer is a Brooklyn-based writer and assistant editor of Hyperallergic.com.