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NYC Time Traveler

A Visit To...C. Columbus

He has stood, on a column high above the Circle bearing his name, as the de facto gatekeeper to the Upper West Side since 1892. He serves as the standard meeting place for my own Upper West Side tour. Last week, bringing a busload of Cornell students and scholars uptown, into the Circle, I tried to tell them that he was still there, only hidden, the column scaffolded and surrounded by a caged staircase, the statue itself enclosed by...a living room six stories above the street. It was, I told them, a public art installation, designed and executed by a Japanese artist with a rare, wry sense of humor. They didn't really get it. I'm not sure I did, either. I wanted to show them Columbus @ Columbus Circle. I wanted to see him myself. I actually started missing him. Which meant I was going to have to advance-book a timed ticket—they're free, but going fast: you know how frenzied these media-hyped public events make folks—and wait on line (you know how that goes too, ticket or no) in order to pay CC a visit in his temporary new quarters.

A handsomely furnished hall running between the skeletal outdoor stairs and the wide entryway to the main room heightens the dizzy drama of suddenly encountering Columbus—thirteen massive marble feet of him—standing on a huge black coffee table, his back to spectators as they step into what is, indeed, a generously proportioned, windowed, wallpapered living room, comfortably appointed with couches, chairs, tables, lamps, a bookcase, and a flat-screen television, among other things. Spontaneous laughter is the nearly universal response to this first sighting and spirits seemed to stay silly-high during my visit. Who knew he was so huge? The contrast with human dimensions—our bodies, this room—is fairly hilarious. Meanwhile, bringing him indoors is like caging any gargantuan creature: however crafty, and even homey, your enclosure, you can't domesticate the thing. I suppose that fairly self-evident irony is built into (no pun intended) this project. As seemingly close as you can now come to C. Columbus—and I sat at his feet in a comfy chair for minutes on end, first studying him, then taking photographs foot by foot—he remains aloof, apart, strangely far away, way up there, his distant gaze down the island still meeting no human eyes.

But I'm happy, in this case, to leave the art-critical response to someone else. Whether or not I (or anyone else) really "gets" this, Discovering Columbus was—it is—surprisingly fun. The views on the way up (and down), as well as from the four huge "living room" windows, are worth something too. I'm already planning on going back with my Mom, and then, maybe again, with friends. I'm already wondering, too, whether I'll miss being able to call on C. Columbus at home, once it's just him back on his lonely column again, aloft in the air above the Broadway crowds...


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