I am an unwilling participant in my own demise. In October 1969, for example, as an off-duty flight-deck officer, standing at the rounded forward edge of the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga. The ship is positioned fifty miles off the coast of Vietnam. The evening is warm, the sea is sleepy. The bow cuts through the water at a restless three-quarters speed – something like twenty-five knots. That in itself should have been a clue. Also, pain has made me careless. My first wife has left me for my best friend. I turn and see a green light six hundred feet away at the other end of the flight deck. I hold up my hand and block out the green. This lets me see the area around the light. The starboard catapult has launched an un-programmed flight, and it is coming right at me. I have less than three seconds before it hits me. I leap off the bow. The safety net catches me six feet down. The sound of the jet passing over my head stuns like lightening that is too close. The safety net fails, breaking away at one end, and I drop, head down, until I am ten feet over the Niagara Falls of the ship’s bow wave. I am wrapped in the net, hanging like a fly in a spider web, my arms pinned, unable to move, swinging back and forth, in the dark. No one will find me until dawn. If the net fails completely, the ship will drive me down and drown me under its eight hundred and forty feet of hull – until one of its two great barnacle-sharpened props, turning at 472 revolutions per minute, cuts me in half, and the wake turns red – visible to no one.
These are the things I see in the half light of morning, just before my black cat pats me once on my forehead, to let me know it is time to unlock the door and let her out.
On a recent trip to Manhattan, an air-conditioned bus rushes at me. I no longer hold up a hand to block out the green lights. I have gained more confidence in the world. I step back in plenty of time. It stops in front of me, and kneels with a hissing sound. That is, the whole front of the bus settles so that it is closer to level of the street. The bus driver – a perfect stranger, with lots of experience – has decided that I need help in reaching the first step. Never mind that I climb 203 steps, all a little irregular and some quite high, in order to reach my house in the Mexican city where I live.
But that is not the point. The point is that the bus driver has some reference, some paradigm through which he views me, which lets him see something I do not see. In short, he has determined that I have reached the Age of Adjustment.
This is not a laughing matter. I am not sure how much he sees. I sight back over the idea of him, and I sense there are things to be aware of, beyond those that are air-conditioned and go whoosh and kneel.
I step aboard. I am relieved that he did not think it necessary for the bus to lie down, so I could roll onto it. I stick my Metro Card into the driver’s scanner and am accepted into the bus’s agreeable safety. The bus rocks me gently over Manhattan’s small irregularities, over the suggestions of dark complexity that lie beneath the city. My head nods. I lean back in my seat. I am in a gondola, gliding through a late Venetian afternoon.
At about 82nd Street, the bus hisses again and, like an elephant, kneels, and I step down onto the germ-covered afternoon pavement. I walk the one remaining block. I wear my wide-brimmed hat, that blocks out the sun. I buy a Senior ticket to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The woman selling me the ticket, less than half my age – but old enough to be a flight-deck officer – hands me a pamphlet that will guide me through the labyrinth.
The publication is about the size of a large letter envelope. Two colors make up one side of the pamphlet. Two grey blues, in different values. One fairly dark, the color of an approaching thunderhead, the other a considerably lighter value, like a thunderhead still at some distance.
I do not know what has makes me do this, but at some point I begin holding the blue-grays of the pamphlet up and sight across them, to the paintings of the renowned nineteenth century English landscape painter Samuel Palmer. I hold them up against the Impressionists Manet, Monet, Cezanne, and Morisot. And then, in another room, I hold them up against Rembrandt.
A guard approaches me. She stares down at my blue-gray pamphlet, as if I might be holding a nine and a half inch knife or something that will cast a bean on the portrait of “Tito Reading,” by Rembrandt, 1658, on loan from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna – and turn it all black.
She asks, “Can you see through it?”
No, I see over it.
But I do not tell her this. I smile and say, “It’s the pamphlet, available to us at the front door.”
For the most part, she is satisfied. Still, she gives me a last disapproving look, turns, and walks away – leaving me to my secret device.
The guards continue to track my progress. Suspicious remains suspicious. Other visitors stare at my motions. For a fraction of a second, they ask themselves, what is he doing? And then the question recedes, and they lean over to read the titles placed underneath the Great Paintings.
What I am doing is this. If you hold thunderhead grays in a way that blocks off the bottom part of the gold frame, then the eye and the brain see things that are otherwise denied to visitors to the Met.
Do not take my word for it. Try it, and you will see things emerge. A small smirking figure with a stem of grass between his teeth. Or something that moves, something that glimmers. Old oranges (the colors, I mean) answer the rumbling blue-grays of the pamphlet and come forward, secret, illegal, that have waited long-suffering through the years – for a friend.
I do not know what you’re thinking right now. Maybe a reluctance to believe what I’m saying, about this or anything else. Perhaps you are thinking my device with its grey blues will not save me, and you don’t want to be the one that has to tell me.
After all, what emerges when I block out distraction will not always whoosh and kneel to give me sanctuary. Or wink from within the Palmer, shift the grass stem from one tooth to the next, and smile and say hello, old friend.
Rather, you might be saying, in the end, the last rope holding the safety net pulls farther apart, and I drop the last ten feet through the soft Pacific evening, down before the Ticonderoga’s thundering bow wave, and – still unwilling – meet the demise that has been hurtling toward me all along. All I had to do was lift my hand to block out your friendly faces, and I would have seen it.