Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Around the World on my Lunch break

By Patrick

Jury duty a few weeks ago had me spending time in a part of town I don't find myself in often, where Soho, Tribeca, Wall Street, Chinatown, Little Italy and City Hall all flow, meld and occasionally crash into each other.  My first lunch break I strolled over to Tribeca hoping to find a cheap place to eat.  Gentrification is  several decades old here so expensive restaurants abound, heavy on the upscale Italian, but just as I began to give up hope, I stumbled onto a classic New York deli.  And when I say classic New York, I mean owned and run by Greeks.  Posters of the Acropolis and Crete mingle with posters for Broadway shows, and Law & Order cast shots signed with complementary messages about the food.  The menu is Midwestern farm and all-day breakfast foods  supplemented by souvlaki, moussaka, and gyros, all served with a pickle and cup of coleslaw, french fries if you order the deluxe (hash browns if you're having eggs).  This place broke with tradition only by having pretty good coffee.

Day two I decided to head east, in search of unfamiliar terrain and something healthier than pancakes.  After a cheap, filling Thai stir-fry, I wandered into a nearby park. 


During a weekday in most parks you'll typically see tourists, pre-school children and their nannies, but this one was different.  The crowd was mostly Asian, mostly men with a few grandmothers, and mostly playing some kind of game that involved Western cards, what I think were Mah Jong tiles, and betting chips.  There was another game that utilized the cement chess boards scattered throughout the park (apparently it's not a New York City Park unless it has permanent chess boards) but it definitely wasn't chess.  The park was accented with cement lanterns and stands of healthy-looking bamboo.  
The sensation of being dropped into East Asia started to fade as soon as I left the park, though there were still plenty of signs, I mean literally shop signs, to sustain the illusion.  Then, on my way back to the courthouse, I ran into an old friend. 

Recently I've been noticing and appreciating old buildings with ornate facades.  I couldn't tell you what era they come from, probably more than one, but I think of them as Art Deco and Art Noveau elements. Expert information is welcome (Baad Lamb?).  I think I would have noticed this guy however, even if I weren't noticing architectural details.  See him up there? 

That is the Green Man.  He's an old, old fellow, a Celtic nature deity, the masculine principle of creation, a sort of Father Nature, if you will.  As is usually the case with these folks, he goes by a lot of names, Cernunnos, Herne to name two, and he has ties to Pan, Dionysus and Hermes.  His face is created by leaves (looks like oak this time, which strengthens the Celtic influence, as does the big moustache).  One theory suggests that his mask/visage came about as a result of those times in forests where you swear you see a face; in the bark of a tree, in a cluster of leaves, sometimes just in the sense of eyes staring at your back in the dark. He is vigorous, feral and about as far from civilized urban life as you can get. 

Did the architect who put him on this building (several times, actually) know any of this?  Did the sculptors?  Was someone trying to sneak an ancient pagan deity into downtown New York City?  I doubt it.  He's a recurring motif on lots of old European churches and cathedrals (where at least a few people involved probably knew exactly who he was).  At this point his role as design element probably has eclipsed his history as nature god.  That's the way these old symbols evolve.  But finding him here,  a tiny element in my multicultural afternoon, was rather fun. 

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