The Floors of the Met

A memorable lesson in art appreciation.

| Summer 2015

  • She was one of those Old World people who never go out for “entertainment.” These are people who still unplug all appliances and electronics when they are not being used.
    Photo by Flickr/Mike Steele

About ten years ago I took my grandmother, my abuela, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. To most New Yorkers, this amazing institution is affectionately known as “the Met.” My grandmother had never been to the Met. She was one of those Old World people who never go out for “entertainment.” These are people who still unplug all appliances and electronics when they are not being used. These people never buy something they don’t really need, barely speak English, and always think you have never eaten enough. My grandmother has never been to the movies, or to a concert, and certainly had not been to a museum.

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression about her. She was someone who appreciated the aesthetics of a thing well made. For all of her working years, she was a seamstress. She could make anything. As a child I watched her cut patterns out of newspaper, and then with discipline and determination make a suit you’d be proud to wear. Up until her stroke at the age of 89, she never wore a store-bought dress. I believe even her undergarments were made by her own hand. And no fabric was unsalvageable. When I was eight she made me, and my doll, the loveliest dress I ever owned from the drapes that used to hang in her living room. My doll still wore that dress long after I had moved away to college.

She was a simple woman. She lived on the ninth floor of her apartment building in the South Bronx from 1960 to 2007, and for more than 40 years (until her stroke) she only occasionally took the elevator, preferring to walk the stairs. She believed in shopping every day for the food you’d need that day, and when she cooked a chicken, she caressed it clean, as if it were a baby, preparing it for a bath of garlic, onions, salt, pepper, oregano, cilantro, and oil.

Over the course of her 92 years, she had only been in a car a dozen times. She came to New York City on a boat when she was 18, and only began to travel outside the city in the 1980s after her last living sister moved from Brooklyn to the Catskills. I think they moved, my great aunt and her husband, to have more room for the chickens. My great aunt Mercedes always raised chickens—she for the meat, and her husband for the cockfighting. The only other time I remember my grandmother traveling out of the city was to attend the funeral of her eldest son, my father, when he died at the age of 46, in New Jersey.

Before my dad moved to New Jersey, he lived in Brooklyn. I moved there too, when I was 22, to spend a year doing an unpaid music therapy internship at Flower Hospital, a hospital for developmentally disabled children and adults on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, just blocks from Museum Mile. From 82nd Street to 105th Street along Fifth Avenue, New York City has designated the area “Museum Mile” because of the many museums and fine art institutions that line Central Park. In those days, the museums along the mile opened up on Thursday evenings for free. And I would go.

There is no better refuge, after a hard day’s work, than a walk into the circular structure of the  Guggenheim, or a time travel through the past in the Museum of the City of New York, or a rest on a bench in one of the many courtyards within the Met. The only evening better than Thursdays on Museum Mile involved a trip to my grandmother’s for a home-cooked dinner. I would try to go once a week. It was only three stops on the train.

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