ON THE TRAIL IN MANHATTAN

[New York City, February 15] On his first solo visit to New York City, Andrew Garret Van Sickle explored the Metropolitan Museum with the expert and energetic guidance of his Aunt Gail, seconded by his Uncle John, for whom the visit brought back memories of Mario Torelli showing how the hieroglyphics praise the Roman Augustus in Egyptian terms. The tour began with the painted fantasy of Roman architecture from the shadow of Vesuvius, went on to savor Islamic tiles and textiles, French mythological and impressionist painting, every kind of drum (Andrew's specialty) then descend a Louis Sullivan staircase from Chicago and size up a Frank Lloyd Wright room, ending with those incredible models of daily life in Egypt: the butcher and baker, the oarsmen and captains in the boats.

Next day began with The Museum of the American Indian, in the Old U. S. Customs House on the Bowling Green at the very foot of Broadway. Here is a museum that lets one feel the textiles, rattle the rattles, pound the drums. But the exhibits also show how artifacts fit into real peoples' religions and lives.

With that reality established, other exhibits raise some sharp questions not only about culture but about the special cultures of museums. Filmed interviews with native craftsmen make the point that traditions must be integrated into current lives and thus open to change. Several exhibits illustrate how different outsiders interpret objects differently: whether anthropologists, art historians, missionaries or colonizers. Other exhibits eloquently document the damage and displacement caused by interlopers, who came and saw and conquered. My thoughts linked back to my current course in classical culture, where we read the story of how Odysseus scorned the pastoral culture of the Cyclopes. Homer portrays his hero envisioning Greek settlement of the nearby island that the Cyclopes could not reach for lack of nautical arts. My thoughts linked, too, as they did in Peru and Bolivia last summer (June 1997), to what I had read and reviewed in Jared Diamond's Guns,Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

From the Customs House we walked to the Battery, where Andrew scouted out some furtive vendors and bargained for a watch: when he turned away with practiced disdain, prices fell by more than half. Next he took on Renaissance revival at the old First Precinct, then the classical orders of architecture: Doric Federal Hall, Ionic ears across Nassau Street, and the Corinthian facade of the Stock Exchange on Broad. After Gothic revival at Trinity Church and Georgian at St. Paul's, it was time for lunch at Sloppy Louie's, over by the tall-masted ships of the South Street Seaport in the antique commercial row of the Schermerhorn Block.

A walk across Brooklyn Bridge had been on the agenda, but the span looked very high and long as we approached it from the docks. Shadows were falling longer and colder from the high towers. All day we had been admiring the elegant green Gothic of the "Cathedral of Commerce"; now we noticed an empty storefront where nothing remained of the lettering but a grimy outline tracing "W O O L W...." We stopped to exclaim at snowdrops and daffodils in a careful garden behind a chain-link fence, found more Ionic ears on sandstone churches as we trudged to Chinatown. Finally, on Canal Street, Andrew struck the right bargain for a watch.