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On the Steps: Personal Indulgences No. 20

FIRST MEMORY

My first memory of steps dates back to my childhood–extreme infancy, to be exact. Science tells us we don’t remember the earliest part of life, and no one I know has ever claimed to. So what makes me think that I can remember–actually feel again–the slow bump, bump, bump as my beloved Aunt Ann, my mother’s elder sister, cradling me carefully in her arms, descended to the street via the front steps of the hospital in which I’d been born just a few days before?

Friends tell me I must have made up that memory a few years later, inspired by my father’s amateur photograph of the event, which had taken a place of honor in our family album. But I don’t remember the descent pictorially, just viscerally: Bump, bump, bump, as my tiny, relaxed body, swathed in a warm mist, thanks to a cozy blanket of fleece, moved with slow, steady, rhythm, down one level to the next. Of course, as Aunt Ann carried me, I didn’t know she was my aunt, or even what an aunt was, but a quarter century later I named my daughter after her. I leave it to you to decide if that first, primal memory could be true. As for me, I think what I think and I know what I know.

THE BABY AND THE STAIRCASE

Once a child can crawl, he soon moves on to the challenge of staircases. Ascending them isn’t too difficult, essentially in crawl position, admittedly made somewhat more challenging by the upward tilt–don’t even think of this on steep flights–and next in upright position with the support of a banister on one side and a watchful adult with quick reflexes on the other. In both cases, if possible, the child should be encouraged to look straight in front of him, never behind. It’s a long way down.

Descending a flight of stairs often enters a baby’s repertoire first, because the easiest technique is to descend backwards in what is, again, essentially crawl position, simply tilted to match the staircase’s slant. An observer standing at the bottom of this flight of stairs sees the cute little bottom, well padded with diaper under the eager toiler’s workaday outfit; this is the well-deserved reward for the caretaker who had the patience and watchfulness to teach the stair-crawler the trick in the first place.

According to this era’s baby books, the appropriate congratulation to the child for success in this maneuver–and most any other physical achievement–is “Good job!” so as to reinforce the idea that achievement at a particular task (or failure, to be greeted with a cheery “It’s coming along”) is not misunderstood by the child to be a judgment about his or her identity as a whole. And here I was, saving “good job” for winning a Rhodes scholarship.

STEP-STOOLS

Before you know it, the child is a toddler, and, having mastered walking to a reasonable, if erratic, degree, often acquires a two-step stool that puts him or her at the right height to use the bathroom sink. My own pair of offspring used one-step affairs, coated in gleaming enamel–one yellow, one red–with wheels imbedded in one side that let them go scooting across the floor, propelled by their legs and feet. Turned over, the objects became flat-topped stools with a hole for carrying them about from wild hallway races to a more decorous washing-hands-before-dinner position. These stools were pieces of invention and plain sleek beauty–at a hefty price–so popular with “advanced” parents of the sixties. When my kids outgrew these handsome devices, they were passed on to younger kids in our circle, so, a generation later, I had to start from scratch for my two granddaughters, preschoolers, who lived nearby. Fortunately, the need arose when I was in my vintage phase, and I found at a church sale a battered wooden affair from, I’d guess, the 1930s or ’40s that sported nursery rhymes with illustrative pictures, all faded by time and use. My daughter (the little girls’ mother) and I loved it a lot. To hell with the Bauhaus. This one had the charm of yesteryear.

JUMPING FROM HEIGHTS

Is there some mathematical law dictating that a child will always jump from a height two steps higher on a stoop than his or her grandmother considers even marginally safe? What impels children to start doing this? The perilous jumping lasts, in my experience, for two years and then vanishes forever, with many a skinned knee to show for it. With barely concealed pride.


OUR STAIRCASES

Lacking risers, the staircases in our own house are lethal. A riser, for folks who have happily managed to avoid the lingo of architecture, is the vertical piece between two horizontal steps (treads, as the trade calls them). Architects love to omit risers, so as to give the staircase space more light and make it seem lighter in weight as well. Lovely visually, but at our place a small enough child can slip straight from the third floor to the basement. (To increase the danger–and, granted, the floating effect–there is sheer empty space between the banisters and the treads.)

We had to carry our grandchildren up and down these staircases until they were three or four and far too heavy for a grandparent to make the trip with the preschooler in his arms. When we reached that stage, Staircase Rules were drummed into the kids’ heads: Don’t use the stairs without a grown-up. Don’t use the stairs when you’re wearing only socks; you might slip. Don’t carry anything when you’re going up or down. Hold on to the banister. No playing on the stairs and no dashing up or down them.

“Why would anybody build stairs kids can’t use?” the youngest grand asked, in a tone more hostile than plaintive. We finally stopped reiterating the rules when her elder sister got two numbers to her age, but their visiting friends still have to be reminded occasionally. It’s a miracle–not that no one has fallen, but that the children are still speaking to us.

CLIMBING INSIDE THE STATUE OF LIBERTY

When I was a child, our family and a neighbor’s took the Battery Park ferry to the Statue of Liberty and climbed the 546 steps (from ground level to the top of the crown) inside the Brobdingnagian sculpture. It was a glorious adventure, climaxing in the view from the top and ending, when we finally got down, with a lavish picnic. Sure enough, the following day brought formidably aching muscles, hot baths, intermittent bed rest, and melodramatic groans. One of the adults in our group had pointed out that we could use an elevator that would take us painlessly as far as the top of the pedestal on which Lady Liberty stands, armed with book clasped close to her bosom and torch held high, thus saving 192 steps. We children had retorted as one, “But it wouldn’t be the same.” This is undeniably true.

STOOP BALL

The authentic game is related to baseball, I read recently. Girls in Brooklyn’s East Flatbush, at least when I was one of them, played a simpler version. Basically you took turns throwing a pink rubber ball (classically a Spaldeen, as we called the Spalding company’s specialty), from a stance on the sidewalk toward the stairs of a house stoop. Brownstones, with their high flights, were favorite sites.

An ordinary throw that hit the stoop and was allowed to bounce just once before you caught it got you 10 points. Easy stuff. The value of hitting the edge of a step with your ball, catching it without allowing it to bounce on the ground as it slammed back to you, was 100. Both parts of the 100-point feat were tricky. Not often succeeding, they carried great cachet, partly, no doubt, because of the danger factor. Those off-the-edge-of-the-step missiles packed a wallop on the rebound, and you might get hit in the face. Sometimes you failed to catch the ball after it had bounced once, and it dribbled gaily past you, along the sidewalk and out into the street. Then the only honor was not to run into the street after it and be mowed down by a passing car. There were, needless to say, no points awarded for caution.

It was lovely to play after dinner, in summer, when the sun set late. In the slowly fading light, the throws became harder to aim well and any competition the game had aroused in full daylight imperceptibly gave way to the mood of a languorous dream. All too soon though, our mothers were leaning out from their kitchen windows, calling us in to bath and bedtime, no doubt relieved to see that another day had passed in which no child they knew had crossed paths with a moving car.

When we had a whole afternoon before us and no one had to go off to a piano lesson or the orthodontist, whoever achieved the remarkable tally of 1000 points won the game. Mostly, though, these games never reached that definitive, triumphant conclusion. Getting there became too tedious. When we lost interest, we’d just drift off into another of the pastimes that, today, seem to exist only in memory.

DEATH

How old was I then? Eight? Nine? Ten at the most. I was walking down the staircase in our two-story house. The steps were carpeted, the thick pile absorbing nearly all footfalls. I stopped, hearing voices from a little sitting room below: my mother’s and the varying sopranos and mezzos of two–or was it three?–of her friends from the neighborhood. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but their voices were warm and cheerful, a springtime medley of chirping birds. I heard them but they hadn’t heard me. They couldn’t see me either; a wall divided the staircase from the room they were in. I thought, This is what it’s like when you’re dead. The world goes on doing what it always does. Except that you’re not there. I felt hollow. I was gone, and no one seemed to notice.

READING ON PARK STEPS

As a teen on summer vacation, I often spent an entire afternoon reading yesteryear’s French classics in the old MoMA Sculpture Garden. It was one of the cheapest ways I knew to feel truly sophisticated. I had been given a year’s membership in the museum, so the experience was entirely free, apart from the price of an espresso from the refreshment cart. The MoMA garden had chairs, but I preferred sitting on one of the wide stone platforms that also varied the heights of the terrain, suggested different areas, and were low enough to serve as steps. Such a rare and elegant perch seemed more in keeping with Racine’s cadences, which, reading his nobly impassioned scenes or reciting them sotto voce, was like swirling a sip of superb brandy inside your mouth.

Two summers later found me reading all afternoon in Washington Square Park during the season’s break at Barnard (my alma mater, too high-toned for summer courses) when I attended the more plebian NYU to earn credits that would let me begin my master’s degree while still an undergraduate. For some reason, I thought this acceleration would be practical, but perhaps there was a romantic aspect lurking behind my behavior as well. Once you slipped away from Barnard’s all-female student body, there was no telling whom you might meet.

So after classes all morning (we were squeezing semester-long courses into six weeks), I would retire to the huge circle with a fountain at its center in the park that’s a Village landmark, which had a few graduated rows of steps in concentric circles on its inner side. As rumpled old men played chess nearby, young mothers aired their babies (while their husbands, no doubt, labored over their doctoral dissertations), hippies played their guitars, Jules Feiffer-style dancers scurried to their rehearsals, and Judson Church tirelessly championed liberal causes, I sat and did the day’s assigned reading.

One afternoon I noticed a handsome older man who watched me from a polite distance for over an hour. Every ten minutes or so I raised my eyes furtively from Chekhov’s heart-rending short stories–or was it Molière’s Les Femmes Savantes?–then methodically continued my reading. Finally–it was nearing sundown–I finished my task and closed my book. The man took this as his signal to approach close enough for conversation.

“Hello,” he said. “You seem to be finished with your work. May I walk you home?”

Maybe his good looks, to say nothing of his suave manner were merely lures. He was also at least fifteen years older than I. Even to my relative innocence, his proposal felt like Not a Very Good Idea. And I was sure he had no idea that the home he offered to walk me to was deep in Brooklyn and inhabited by my very protective parents.

“No, thank you,” I said in what I hoped was a tone of sophisticated hauteur and went briskly on my own way. I wonder why I still remember this.

DANISH STEPS

My present to my daughter for her high-school graduation was two weeks in a single European city. She chose Copenhagen; she’d heard good things about it. I’d made many friends there on working-and-playing trips before that and, of course, when Anne and I arrived, all those friends asked us to dinner. I had never quite realized, before that trip with my daughter, how many of my friends lived in fifth-floor walk-ups. We always arrived at their door panting.

The most intimidating staircase in Copenhagen, though–admit it, the scariest–is the one that spirals around the outside of the steeple tower of Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Savior’s Church). Of course we climbed it (we were extremely thorough tourists), I trembling with terror though I tried not to reveal it to my teenager; Anne herself increasingly blithe-spirited. Did I mention that the winds were high that day? Finally, Anne stood on the very top step, her long chestnut hair blown into rivulets. I stood, now frozen by fear, two steps below her and took her picture. I behaved as if I needed the lower perch to take the photograph but, truth to tell, I couldn’t mount a step further.

THE SUBWAY UPSTAIRS

At 10, my youngest grand is the girl her early childhood promised: tall, slender, willowy, strikingly pale, and now a crackerjack athlete, with extraordinary eye-hand coordination and surprising physical stamina.

When she was not quite four, it was one of my grandmotherly duties and pleasures to collect her from her preschool on West 121st Street once a week at midday, ferry her by subway (the Broadway bus took forever) back to my house on West 96th, and entertain her until returning her to her parents for dinner. After making this trip myriad times, it occurred to me that instead of boarding the subway at 116th, as directed in the “official” parental instructions, we could shorten our walk by boarding at 125th Street station. So one (exceedingly hot and humid) day we tried. Turns out 125th is an elevated station. Go know.

I can’t tell you how many steps we had to climb to reach the platform, but toil away the child did (she being too heavy to carry even part of the way up), without complaint. Not at all to my surprise, she even took the discouraging circumstances in good humor, pretending we were scaling Mt. Everest, and so on. I should have known; she has always been a cheerful traveler. The only time I’ve heard her admit to exhaustion was when we sat on a park bench, trying to get our strength back in the middle of a far too long walk we attempted one day. “I wish I had a stroller,” she mused aloud, “or a wheelchair.”

VIEWING THE BROOKLYN MUSEUM FOUNTAIN FROM ITS AMPHITHEATER STEPS

In 2004, the Brooklyn Museum added to its wonders a beautiful, compelling fountain, created by WET Design, and a handsome structure of concrete amphitheater-style steps, overlaid with wood, for comfort, on which you can sit to contemplate it.

Shaker-plain in construction, spectacular in action, the fountain consists of two parallel rows laid out in a long, subtly curved horizontal path. From nearly invisible outlets at ground level, jets of water spring skyward, then retreat, the plumes of water falling straight back upon themselves, to end in a grand splash, only to rise again.

The magic lies in the orchestration of the event. The amount of water and the force with which it’s driven into the air varies from Lilliputian and gentle, making you think of a bubbling brook, to towering thrusts toward the heavens, suggesting energy of the highest power, and, of course, several heights and pressures in between. The arrangement of which streams of water go high, which go low, which in between–and when–results in stunning pictures etched on space: of curves, waves, unpredictably sloping lines, and pageants of synchronized marchers deploying their most inventive stunts. Remember, all these ephemeral images are composed of single jets projected unerringly upward. (Andy Newman, writing in the New York Times, called the effect “liquid fireworks.”) Returning to their source, single drops of water from the vertical jets register as colorless transparent jewels of all sizes, each incredibly clear-edged, suspended for a microsecond between earth and sky.

Occasionally the spouting water disappears entirely, as if resting before its next exploit, while the viewers on the amphitheater steps, perhaps in complement to the sudden nothingness, grow particularly quiet. Could they be wondering, as I was at first, if they’d imagined the whole display?

Upon discovering the fountain, serendipitously, my elder granddaughter and I began to combine a fountain viewing with our usual excursions to the museum itself, or to the Botanic Garden, just next door. But little by little I realized the fountain alone was a major destination, so the youngster and I have agreed on 45 minutes watching the fountain before a visit to, say, the museum’s outstanding Egyptian and African collections, its American art, and its period rooms or to the famous cherry trees and atmospheric walks through contrasting aspects of nature in the Botanic Garden, finishing with a second 45 minutes of fountain contemplation. I suspect the time at the fountain may need to be increased further; she leaves it so reluctantly, as if parting with a friend about to move to some faraway place, whom she may never see again.

Invariably she watches the fountain with a mesmerized look on her face.

“Are you hypnotized by the fountain?” I asked, teasingly, one day.

“No,” she replied, highly serious. “I am trying to figure out the pattern.” I think she has her work cut out for her. The complex order of the water’s antics seems either to have a very long loop or works in some way at random. I have just discovered, though, that the fountain is occasionally on at night. I can’t wait to witness that scene in her company.

MISS TULLY’S STAIRCASE

To my mind, the best element of the renovated Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center is the cluster of high-rising steps just outside it, facing the building, thus shielded from the street, and angled in sections to complement the overall design–Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s.

Gloomy is the only word for the original architecture, though the auditorium had decent acoustics. Now the building looks like a glass spaceship with pointed sky-piercing protuberances, blinding when the sun strikes it and, with every wine glass in the interior café visible from the street, utterly devoid of privacy. It is the spitting image of today’s culture. For me, the makeover’s redeeming feature, which may even have been an afterthought, is those outdoor steps. They humanize the portentous renovation. Children clamber over them. Unassuming-looking folks consume the sandwiches they’ve brought with them. Lovers of all ages sit close, side by side, murmuring to each other. Friends exchange information, opinion, and mere gossip with animation. Loners read, knit, or stare meditatively ahead, as if they were considering the trajectory of their lives. That clever arrangement of stairs turns it into a communal front stoop.

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

At the close of Apollo, George Balanchine’s incomparable early ballet, the trio of muses the young god has played with and gravely judged as part of his growing from birth to manhood–Terpsichore, Polyhymnia, and Calliope–follow him in a line as he walks solemnly to a stark staircase, which we see in profile, and ascends it. When he reaches the top step, they all stop, like a procession of figures in an ecstatic frieze, and stretch one gently curved arm toward the heavens. You’re not likely to see this anymore because, late in his career, the choreographer cut both the opening of the work (Apollo’s birth) and that last passage (both dependent on the staircase), ostensibly to remove any narrative from the piece. But if you saw it back in the day of–oh, so many remarkable things–you can imagine it, and I frequently do.

© 2011 Tobi Tobias

Comments

  1. Such an interesting post on so many levels. I like pieces like this that relate dance to everyday, “real” physicality. Dance, after all, does have some origin in regular old human movement, and it can be enlightening to try to understand why certain movements suggest certain emotions to us.
    Further, I am the mother of a 13-month-old boy. You can bet I have watched his developing motor skills–and interest in music–with curiosity, not to mention affection. How will all this develop in the years ahead? And how extraordinary that we start with these simple physical challenges and begin to master an increasingly complex physical world–which can be elevated to art when performed on the stage!

  2. Thank you. I loved this.

  3. Karen Wilkin says:

    Lovely piece.

  4. Jeff Weinstein says:

    What an extraordinary piece! Among the many wonderful parts, I seemed to have stopped at “Death,” reading and re-reading.
    Thanks!

  5. I’ve known small dogs to be terrified of riser-less stairs, but you reminded me of the stairs in my grandmother’s house on Staten Island. (I can’t remember how old I was before I realized that the two words on the address were the same as the place she lived in– “Statniland.” ) Though the house has changed sufficiently that when I found a recent photo on line, my mother didn’t recognize it, every time I go up stairs that turn a corner I hear myself being warned to be careful on the skinny wedge-shaped ones. Every time, over half a century later. Thanks for the memories.

  6. Ann Ilan Alter says:

    As usual your piece is very evocative, bringing back memories of stairs, steps, and hangouts that I loved because they were places from which to get the best view.
    My earliest memory of steps is sitting on the first landing in our house in Detroit and looking down on my parents in the living room below. I also rolled down those steps one day, laughing so hard that no one was sure whether I had planned it or it was an accident.
    But my favorite memory of steps is the grand staircase in the Louvre that leads up to the “Winged Victory of Samothrace.” It is still one of my favorite places to go in Paris when I am killing time.
    When I was seven and living in Paris, there was no school on Thursdays, so my mother and I hung out together, going to various wonderful places around the city: the Tuileries, the Luxembourg, and, when the weather was cold and damp, the Louvre. In those days the entrance to the Louvre deposited you in the grand hall where the Roman sculptures, such as the “Venus de Milo,” were lined up on each side leading to the grand staircase with the “Winged Victory” at the top. I used to run up and down the staircase and around the statue until my mother got embarrassed that her wild American child was out of control; the French kids were never allowed to run around the museum, but walked politely by their mothers’ side, the little girls in their proper pleated skirts, holding hands, very much like the kids in the Madeleine books. Of course, later, when I saw Audrey Hepburn in “Funny Face” come out from behind the “Winged Victory” and run down the stairs, letting the panels of her dress soar behind her, I wanted to be able to do that too.
    It is also interesting that in English the same word for what makes a staircase–”steps”–is also the word we use for dance movements. In French a dance step–”pas”–is specifically for movement. The steps in a staircase are called “marches,” which also becomes the verb “marcher,” meaning to “walk.” Perhaps this is why Balanchine eliminated the stairway in “Apollo,” because it becomes a very literal pun to an English speaking audience.
    I particularly enjoyed your essay, especially the end. I never saw “Apollo” with the staircase, but I could imagine it in your telling. The choreography still evokes the staircase, even if it is now an imagined one.

  7. Mindy Aloff says:

    Mindy Aloff writes:
    Go to the New York Times website and put this in its Search box: “Taking the Stairs Inside a Duplex Apartment.”
    I wonder if the writer read your lovely essay on stairs.
    The article, by Vivian S. Toy, is “The Added Value in a Staircase,” published in the New York Times, February 11, 2011.

  8. Lois Schaffer says:

    This was a beautifully articulated piece, literally and figuratively. While the steps refer to a tangible object, figuratively the steps can also refer to learning, a maturation process, passing from one plateau to another, ascending.
    The word, “ascending” in the dictionary is defined as “upward movement,” “a rising movement,” “advancement.” In other words, challenges. These definitions can also refer to a “learning process,” of “remembering” in a literal sense as expressed in “OUR STEPS,” and figuratively, the fond memories as expressed in “DANISH STEPS.”
    John Steinbeck wrote: “Man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments.”

  9. Carol Schlacter says:

    I think I loved No. 20, “On the Steps,” Most of All, but I would have to go back and re-read them all to know for sure.

  10. Maida Withers says:

    Enjoyed learning about you and your family. Glad you were born.
    Maida Withers

  11. Jeannette Andersen says:

    Wonderful. Vivid. Makes New York visible.

  12. Lori Ortiz says:

    My early memory of stairs is the one in my childhood home with 13 steps. I prided myself on a special ability to fly down them. Reading your story, I wondered why my parents never had rules about the stairs. I always considered them overprotective, in general.
    I hope to meet you on Miss Tully’s staircase sometime. After reading your pieces, I always feel I have missed something–having children and grandchildren, Mark Morris performances in his building, and even this staircase, which I haven’t noticed yet.

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