🇬🇧 Incidental New Yorker XVIII

The UN Elephant

September 19, 2016

A good friend invited me for breakfast at Tiffany’s on Friday. Can’t, because we’re leaving on Thursday! Such is life.

Okay, so you can’t have breakfast at Tiffany’s with one friend, but then you can have dinner with other friends! Ban & the Bandits
Photo © Mette Holm

But Saturday evening, another wonderful friend invited us to participate in an extraordinary experience, Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of Loss at Park Avenue Armory. Professional mourners from many parts, i.a. Albania, Azerbaijan, Burkina Faso, Tibet, Greece, Yezedi, a people that has suffered immense loss, bordering on genocide at the hands of Da’esh (also known as IS). This, however, is not the issue when you enter the Armory’s vast drill hall, while mourning is. For 10 days or so, professional mourners from 10-15 countries or regions perform their lamentations simultaneously – in 11 large concrete tubes resembling pipes of a huge organ (no photos, so can’t show you). You enter the unlit drill hall, and watch from the gallery as the various troupes or individuals quietly enter their respective tube in near darkness. Then, signalled by drum beats, the lamentations start, and spectators are led down into the near dark drill hall, where each pipe houses a ritual of grief. The performers have served as mourners in their communities for a long time as have generations of their forbears before them. One team was mother and daughter, rhythmically beating their chests and thighs. Their profession is becoming extinct. So Simon’s magnificent installation is both a homage to a dying profession, to our magnificently diverse world, a unique opportunity for the few remaining professional mourners from all over the world to meet – and perhaps a chance for them to connect and organise, and thus perpetuate their unique craft. And most of all, it is Simon’s brilliant attempt to map the anatomy of grief, an insisting performance that permeates your mind, and senses in particular. In the hall, the various laments make up quite an overwhelming cry of humanity. When entering one of the slender and very tall tubes, only the particular mourner or group of mourners are audible – and visible. The whole thing is fleeting and deeply moving.

Sunset over Hudson River & New Jersey. Photo © Mette Holm

Strolling home from Uptown to Midtown filled with impressions from the mourning spectacle, we had no idea of the explosion further south, in Chelsea. Local police maintained that Saturday night’s attack was not an act of terror; later the governor clarified by adding not international terrorism. 

Luckily no fatalities, but another pressure cooker-homemade bomb of sorts was found, unexploded, in a nearby trash can. Earlier, on the opposite bank of the Hudson in New Jersey, a homemade tube bomb had exploded along the route of a charity running event. Due to an overwhelming amount of participants the race started late, so no-one was around when the device exploded. Later, in Minnesota, nine people were stabbed by a single attacker with a knife in a mall. Luckily, no fatalities there either. But the attacks were yet more reminders of the state of the world, the horrid cocktail of terror (or attempted terror) and its evil, cowardly intentions, to create ever swelling fear in people. All this whether or not organised by ill-intended religious fundamentalists, gangs, nuts or whatever. Threats to society, big or small, boil over into fear that translates into widening polarisation in communities and the world, very, very detrimental to human co-existence.  

Oscar Niemeyer’s General Assembly  building to the right , and Le Corbusier’s Secretariat building, center. It has been a privilege, exciting and fun to be part of activities in the UN during the 70th session.
Photo © Mette Holm

🍏 The other day, once more, I spent hours at Apple’s Genius Bar at Grand Central Station with my mightily heavy 27# computer. Although it’s almost four years old, I wasn’t really expecting an ambush from that angle. Overheating, strange sounds, slow as death, very serious threats of crashing – full of manuscripts, photos, videos, sound reports and more. Luckily I had recently resuscitated my back up time capsule! Taught by experience, I had booked an appointment at Genius Bar the day before. So I packed myself and my heavy and very unhandy load into a cab, and showed up at the designated time. Lots of incredibly friendly staff welcomed me, sat me down, told me that the next free genius would be at my disposal. Half an hour passed, as I watched one genius after the other assisting several people before me, and getting quite irritated; a young individual self assuredly assured me that the next genius would surely take care of my computer issues. Not so! The Grand Central Station alarm went off – very noisily, no-one could actually hear what was being shouted in the speakers. But any alarm going off in Grand Central Station with its thousands of commuters, shoppers, eaters as well as heavily armed soldiers these days, promptly releases the inner alarm – what’s happening? Get out of this crowded place! Should or shouldn’t I bring my 30 pound computer? Young genius says, “let’s go, I’ll carry it to the elevator.” Computer issues suddenly shrink to the size of a raisin. Off we go. Before the elevator door closed, the alarm was called off. Great relief! And suddenly there were enough geniuses to go around, because customers had fled or something … Several friendly geniuses finally solved my issues, which meant simply erasing everything and reinstalling the steering system! Arrrgh! But as I truly believe in sustainability, I refuse to buy a new computer every few years, same with smart phones and the like. Apple’s strategy of producing everything to last briefly is repulsive, very much contrary to sustainability and just not trendy anymore! So I ended up ordering extra ram for my computer, thus – myself! – injecting it with more space and memory and expecting it to last me at least a couple of years more, and hopefully longer. And much as I try not to succumb to exchanging computers, phones and the like every year or two, like Apple and the others want me to, I insist on not succumbing to fear of going about my life.

Decorated wall near Broadway. Photo © Mette Holm

So Sunday morning, when Mi Presidente was going to present a prize at a young women’s football (soccer to some) tournament some 50 streets north, I walked to the venue along Lexington Avenue. Lots of police at every corner, partly because of the upcoming high-level week at the UN, which attracts leaders from all over the world, partly because of last night’s explosion. The violent maniacs and the terrorists are criminals, who with their callous and calculated acts want us to stop living, they want us to fight each other, they want to disrupt our lives, they want to plant fear in us – intangible and frightening. We should not, and we will not, let them.

Evening stroll past Radio City Music Hall Photo © Mette Holm

Sunday started out with the soccer tournament on 92nd Street. Our last event was an Estonian choral concert at a Catholic Church on 16th St. Police had cordoned off big parts of the city. Traffic hardly moved. Dinner was street side mussels on 51st. We do get around! And no two days are the same.

On a different note: All the stuff has been shipped home, and we are staying in a small hotel for the last two weeks. Fond farewells ad libitum, last meetings, the last weeks of August we explored as much of the city as we possibly could, lovely outings to Coney Island and Brighton Beach where everything is written and done in Russian, Cyrillic script everywhere, and very little English. Lots of elderly people watching street life unfold. And cycling to Prospect Park to have “Smorgasburg” lunch, lobster sandwiches, with a friend, going to concerts, exhibitions, whatever … Strolling across the city, dining on sidewalks and in back gardens. Trying to store the best of this crazy city in our minds – while looking forward to distancing ourselves from the flipside.

One thing we will not miss, but surely follow closely never the less, is the mind boggling, surreal presidential election campaign. Somehow “presidential” doesn’t fit the bizarre goings on that constitute the campaign. When His Trumpness 🌽🌽🌽 heard about the explosion in Chelsea, before anyone had any idea of what was going on he basically declared war on …. whom? Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was reluctant to send in the troops without having a general idea of culprits etc.

🇺🇸 Who will the Americans choose? And who will this president in turn choose to shape e.g. the judicial system for generations to come? The foreign policy? The country that young Americans will grow up in? I have been puzzled to note that Virginia’s governor has been accused of wanting to manipulate the voter-population, because he wished to reinstall ex-felons’ right to vote. One by one, he has had to sign each ex-felon’s voting right, almost 13,000, because Virginia’s Supreme Court had barred him from lifting the state’s constitutional ban on on voting for ex-felons by executive order. This ban has meant that one in five African-Americans in Virginia have not been able to vote. But they will be in the upcoming election. And I do hope they will make use of this right. His Trumpness 🌽🌽🌽 doesn’t approve and has accused Governor Terry McAuliffe of “getting thousands of violent felons to the voting booth in an effort to cancel out the votes of both law enforcement and crime victims.” Interestingly, according to New York Times, State Republicans had called Mr. McAuliffe’s effort to restore voting rights a political plot to put more Democrats on the voting rolls. The governor insists on ensuring that former felons are not marginalised forever. New York Times writes that most states don’t allow felons to vote, but usually people regain their voting right after completing their sentence. 

★ ★ ★

It will be great to go home. Family and friends beckon. And Denmark has been blessed with a gorgeous Indian Summer, they tell us, and we can’t wait to catch just a bit of it. Soon, at solstice, days will shorten and nights stretch their darkness far into the day. 

With Mi Presidente in front of the life size replica of a magnificent African bull elephant, whose genitals so shock New Yorkers that the UN, to hide his manhood, has had to plant a small hedge around him.
Photo © Mette Holm

So, how has it been? 

New UNDP Ambassador for Global Goals, fellow Dane Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Photo © Mette Holm

Everyone deserves the terrific experience of actually feeling the heartbeat of the world. Of being close to the successes of the UN – as well as the painful failures and inadequacies. Meeting and getting to know the people that work so hard to improve other peoples’ lives. It has been fun, exciting, tragic, dramatic, exhausting … We have cried in terror, when Istanbul Atatürk Airport was attacked soon after we left, and the same for lovely Gaziantep close to the Syrian border. Tears of happiness were shed at the signing of the initial peace deal for Colombia in Havana, at the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals as well as the agreement on Climate Change in Paris last year – only weeks after that lovely city was struck by more cowardly terror attacks, as were cities all over the Middle East and further afield. 

Bye, bye for now. More to follow when time allows …

So enjoyed my stint as faculty advisor at Columbia University.
Photo © Viktor Nilsson