Destination: Perth Amboy (Travels with Jose and Nick)
Destination: Perth Amboy Art Gallery Center For the Arts for the opening reception of “The Many Faces Of Eve” exhibit, in which some of my work is exhibited along with 7 other women artists. And as is often the case, the journey was more than half the fun.
We’re a party of four: Jose, Nick, my daughter Carolyn and myself. I drive, because Jose grew up in Florida and drives with trepidation at 40 mph on the highway. Nick lives in the New York City and I understand that the last time he drove was on a vacation out west 10 years ago. Nick and Jose think I am an amazing driver, and revel at my “calm”. They sit in the back so they don’t get nervous as I effortlessly dart in and out of lanes with practiced care.
Jose and Nick, both prolific artists, carry on their typically fascinating repartee on history, the arts and socio-cultural snippets in a brilliant, almost stream-of-consciousness style. Cruising down Rt. 287, we cover Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, St. Peter in the Walls, the Vanderbilts, Guggenheims and Coopers, and Nick getting lost in the desert during his Army years.
Because we arrive early, we take a drive down to the Perth Amboy waterfront and find a cozy pub restaurant. We sit at the bar with stuffed and painted swordfish watching over our shoulders, and we order food and drinks. I learn that this is one of Jose’s wife’s favorite places, and that afterwards she likes to go for a walk along the water.
I also learn that this urban scrawl of a town filled with trinkets like Jesus statues with eyes that wiggle, costume lingerie and shops that sell everything for a dollar, was once a thriving city where, in fact, the Guggenheim family originally made its fortune in the tin and copper business. (I’d always assumed they’d been in the art business…) (And to be fair to the city of Perth Amboy, it’s experiencing a revival, much to its credit.)
The bar is small, so we can’t help noticing a middle-aged woman, a retired man wearing a navy baseball cap, and a man in a Mets jacket, in the throes of a vigorous debate about the condition of America – more specifically, about the current health care measures. Tired from a long day followed by a long drive, I think that my daughter, myself and my 2 artist friends are secretly pleased for the diversion. Possibly a classic one.
The woman is a registered Democrat but considers herself Independent. She holds the floor for a good while, batting back rebuttals from across the bar, where the retired man plays devil’s advocate.
“Have you read the bill?” he’d ask, and she’d say “No, but…. well, have you read the bill?” and he’d say “No, but …” …So that both have their say but there isn’t a lot of credence being placed on the other’s opinion. “Are you one of those Teabaggers?” he asks. “No, but I think they have every right to speak up.” “Well, from everything I’ve read they seem like troublemakers” On it goes.
At some point – must have been that our food arrived and in our ravenous state we lost track of the conversation ~ really yummy food, by the way ~ the woman has no more to say and the conversation shifts over to the guy in the Mets jacket seated beside the retired man.
The Mets guy is Republican. If the topic were different, I imagine these two being friends. Obviously they both like baseball. But of course the views of these two men are even farther apart than the woman’s had been, making it feel like we’re watching a microcosmic episode of MSNBC vs. FOX News.
Each man clearly feels confident, and just a little bit righteous, about their opinions. In a situation like this I wouldn’t normally chime in and I do NOT want to get in the middle of what is becoming a somewhat heated political discussion. Yet they’re driving me a little crazy, and it’s all I can do to bite my tongue.
There’s a slight but growing air of volatility. The bartender walks around to diffuse a potential fight. He puts his hand on a shoulder and says, “Take it easy, guys.”
At the same time, Jose apparently senses my tongue biting, so he tosses me into the ring (… what was he thinking? … or maybe he saw an opportunity break the tension…) by announcing that I have something I want to say. Which is actually true – so out it spills. Even more surprising, to me, is that they listen … as I tell them that they are, right then and right there, acting out the divide in our country between right/left, right/wrong ~ it’s all black and white with no gray area. They are so sure of their own positions, they don’t hear the other person’s view. There’s not enough open-mindedness going on to at least consider some of the points the other made. They’re not having a conversation ~ not even a debate ~ it’s all “I’m right, you’re wrong, this is the way it is, and, he said this, and well, but he said that…” Almost a test of wills. There is condescension. Try to listen to each other, not just plan your next stab.
My piece has been said. No fists are raised. (Later, Nick shares how impressed he was that I “got in the middle of the fight”. I did? I didn’t think it was all that bold, but of course, I couldn’t see myself.) Then they ask my daughter her opinion. She answers with fabulous diplomacy for a 13-year-old. I am proud.
Shortly after that, Jose talks to them too. Jose is both an artist and a professor. I don’t think I’ve ever met a more knowledgeable historian; one who’s interestingly knowledgeable, not just book smart. So he comes at them with this wealth of archival information and holds them in the palm of his hand. And, unlike me, (and more bravely than me), he takes sides – yet he does so in such a way that disarms both men.
It is pretty remarkable. They seem to lose their battle cry, and instead wonder aloud about who this guy is – where was it that he taught, what school? Interesting how the mind can respond.
We go on our merry way, four artistic souls out for a simple taste of life. We walk along the piers, take some pictures. Ponder more juicy historical morsels and finally end up at the art show, which is, if you recall, the whole reason for our journey.
The show is lovely, energetic, and warm. I especially like the conga musicians. They come late though, and we have to leave. We head for home… with the streaming dialogue in the back seat serving up more intellectual treats, and stories already being concocted about yet another creative journey with Jose and Nick. And once again, they admire my driving skill.
I’ll always wonder how it ended up over there at the bar by the bay.
I’m also thinking, my daughter probably learned more in those few hours than in a year of social studies class. The really good news is she also thought it was fun. As did I.
A couple days later I overheard my daughter repeat to a friend something she learned that night. Her friend asked her how she knew what she knew. She told them it’s because her Mom hangs out with really smart people. : )
ps: there are a few more pictures from the exhibit at the patricia saxton blog.