Some say that both art and travel make the ordinary seem strange so that we can see the ordinary all over again in a new way. In the routine of everyday life, at our everyday place, perceptions of reality become blunted and stale. Instead of living we shift into autopilot. Things that are strange – artwork, music, an uncommon figure of speech, a foreigner’s accent, a new locale – makes us stop, look, and listen. By having to grapple in a more strenuous, self-conscious manner, we experience the world in a new way.
I experienced something like that driving around Cleveland. I didn’t go to the usual tourist attractions. I barely glanced at the blue steel Erie Lake, drove right by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, briefly appraised the many Cuyahoga bridges for suicide potential, and figured the stately porticos of the museums to be enough high culture for one day. I mostly just drove around, through good neighborhoods and bad, and noted the similarities of Cleveland’s streets to those of my own decaying city.
I got hungry at one point and began to look around for some local dive in which to get dinner and consume the atmosphere. I came upon the West Side Market and decided to stop. It seemed to be an old train station converted into a farmer’s market, crowded with cheeses, tubes of smoked meats, and the late winter produce of hydroponic greenhouses of northern Ohio. It was also crowed with people of every shape and variety. I thought I might find a deli.
Picking my way through the market crowds, I was reminded of the hundreds of similar markets and arts festivals I accompanied my ex-wife to. She had a passion for looking at boxes of ripe vegetables, wooly macramé, tables of jewelry, paintings of farmsteads, and rusting junk sculptures of comic creatures. She would linger in the tents that sold tie-die, but she would never buy, for she was a sedate dresser. She would discuss the merits of brown eggs versus white with farmers, feathers clinging to their plaid jackets, while I waited patiently and impatiently, laden with bags of fruit. She would peer at the photographs hung in tents and inquire into f stops while I watched the people. I loved watching the people, especially, if the truth be old, the women, but mostly I loved watching her. She found her joy in seeing, and I found my joy in seeing Joy finding her joy.
I called her Joy because that’s what she was to me, even though her name was Joyce. To me, Joyce sounded like choice and I had no choice, I had to be with Joy, because she was my joy. Unfortunately she turned out to be a fleeting joy and now, like everyone else, I call her Joyce, when I call her at all.
Joy loved to look at things. She wasn’t much for touching or whispering sweet nothings or hearing what I had to say, but she did have a passion for looking. She had ten thumbs at the end of her hands, needed a recipe to boil water, and only cleaned when people were coming over, but her ocular abilities were in a class of their own. I often wondered what she saw in me.
I think her passion for looking is why she studied art history in college. I was happy to pay her way and support us through all of her college years until she got her doctorate and would have been happy to continue to support us if she decided to write or curate at some, local, poverty-stricken museum; but no, she got it into her head to teach Kansans how to look at Art.
For years I had hoped that she would soon tire of that boring state and come back to me. There is nothing to look at in Kansas, I told her. All it is, is flat land, and corn, and corn-fed white faces. Don’t you want to come home and see the inner city graffiti, and the fall leaves, and go with me to art festivals and farmer’s markets? Do they even have art’s festivals and farmer’s markets in Kansas?
No, she never came back and the only response to the letters I wrote was a large packet that contained our divorce papers. Later, she married a Kansas man who was stunning to behold, but had an empty mind. He was perfect for her, I had to admit.
I always said to her that one thing these markets never had enough of was music. Oh, they would have the occasional chick with a pick and the rare reggae band stationed here and there in the festival, but their music never carried far through the crowds. I often wondered why more buskers didn’t work the festivals and farmer’s markets. Perhaps they were chased off by goons of the monopolistic musicians’ union. Sometimes I would park myself near a musician while my Joy foraged for arts and crafts, but I would never stay long because I liked the unexpected discovery of music better than the music itself.
For all the apparent scarcity of musicians, every festival would always have some Peruvians playing their flutes. I imagined these Peruvians piling into a Peruvian bus, the windshield gaily decked in tassels, and traveling up the Pan American highway, to the land of opportunity. They wandered from one festival to the next like Grateful Deadheads. I imagined retired Peruvian flutists returning to their villages, high in the Andes, filled with stories of America, training scores of children to blow across pipes. I wondered if they then saw their Peruvian villages with new eyes after looking at ours. Word must have spread from one village to the next, resulting in a kind of mad gold rush of Peruvian musicians to America. I like to support immigrants improving their lives, but I just wished they would learn more than one song, a haunting ethereal melody, as thin as the air at 14,000 feet, which they seemed to play over and over.
To no surprise at all, the West Side Market had its own Peruvians, but these were different from any that I’ve ever seen. There was no flute, but there was a violin playing what to me sounded like a Gypsy air, and an harpist holding his harp on his shoulder so that it towered above the market. Two dancers alternated in competition, each holding in one hand a red scarf and in the other an unfastened pair of scissors that they clacked together like castanets. The dancers wore lampshades on their heads and gaily decorated chaps and an apron that left the jeans on their backsides exposed as a hospital gown. A Peruvian boy passed around a flyer explaining the spectacle.
Dancing with Scissors, it said and explained that it was a ritual enacted since the 1500′s in reaction to the takeover of the Spanish Conquistadors. The Scissors Dance survived as a kind of Inca resistance movement. Dancers believe that the old Inca gods had taken refuge in their bodies and allow them to perform this wild dance to signal their return.
I studied the dancers for the presence of divinity and keenly listened to the music for God’s voice. I knew that old gods, like old feelings and old resentments, lingered indefinitely, hiding amid the ordinary, showing themselves in the strange.
All I could observe in their steps was their joy. I wished Joy could be here with me to see this.