A Subway Series
After years on the roads of Japan, sketching the distant traveling stops with brush and ink, creating many successful series of woodblock prints, Hiroshige is bored. He has traveled the highways in every weather. The snack vendors and the customs men know him by name. One night, in his workroom, Hiroshige dreams of a place where the artist is valued as more than a craftsman. A tempting illusion, a manifestation of desire? He is at home with rapid transit. Why not?
Hiroshige storms into New York City from the nineteenth century, wearing a straw raincoat that lends him the wings of a hawk. When he enters the subway, the love of work wells in him. Just as the Tokkaido highway linked the ancient Japanese capitals of Kyoto and Tokyo, the IRT links Wall Street and Gracie Mansion. Passengers dart pell-mell for an empty local train, like travelers escaping a sudden downpour. Hiroshige imagines how well he would render their expressions if he had room to use his brush and ink.
He begins to formulate a new series: views of the IRT. The rich parallels—the differences. He rides the subway compulsively, planning. What do New Yorkers find unique about each station? Hiroshige is a bit at sea. Although he conducts interviews, Americans don’t reveal any awareness of their surroundings. When do they contemplate? They are very secretive about it.
The first brush paintings satisfy and excite him. At Union Square, passengers are fanned out along the curved track and stare down apprehensively at the moving platforms. He successfully suggests Grand Central Station empty at night, the stairways boxed off for repair with stained plywood. Passengers warily eye one another as the train comes luminously into the station.
His landscapes are famous for skies that shade imperceptibly from brilliant ultramarine to a pale wash. When rivals ask “Ando, how do you do it?” he answers with an inscrutable look. He can make the smoke yellow of the subway walls flow from soft brown shadows to cream. The effect will be subtle, tranquil. Against the walls he will place the bold shapes of the trains, the quick movements of the passengers, early-morning sleepers under tents of cardboard, long narrow stairs ascending toward a square of sky. So much! He must choose carefully to keep his designs spare and clear.
Yet he feels the absence of the natural world. Seasons are reduced to a variation in coats and umbrellas. The cycles of day and night are revealed only in the size of the crowd and in subtle expressions he is not sure he can render.
To depict 59th Street, he decides to open up both levels, the local tracks above the express; a boy leaps over the turnstiles, the token-booth clerk yelling after him while the crowd surges toward the train.
The ambitious double-level composition succeeds but for an unexpected problem. On the Tokkaido, travelers turned toward the action, guiding the eye of the viewer. Here the crowd leaving the train ignores the figure leaping the turnstile. Instead of focusing the composition, their movement carries the eye off the page. But he cannot show the crowd acknowledging the boy; that scene would not be real. He decides to start on 86th Street and come back to it.
86th Street. Passengers walking from the blurred train are posed before the horizontal striations that signal speed in woodcuts. To render a “smoke condition,” he draws lozenge-shaped clouds hanging over the station. He is pleased with the effect, but an American friend says they look like cough drops.
He has completed twelve sketches. Already elements repeat themselves. Perhaps this will be a mini-series. He’s working nights as a cook in a Japanese restaurant. He’s hindered by his poor command of English. He has been looking through the Yellow Pages trying to find woodblock carvers. He needs to bring together the scenes he has rendered; they don’t seem to be related yet, don’t seem to form a unit.
In preliminary versions, his Americans look Japanese. He cannot capture the lack of fluidity in their gestures. It’s my style, he reassures himself. The effect of the smoke-yellow background turns out to be somewhat depressing.
Hiroshige starts spending time in sushi bars. He breathes in the sharp odor of wasabi. “What am I doing here?” he asks the chef. His current work is hopeless. His past work could have been better. He comforts himself by ordering yellowtail and sea urchin.
The difficulty of getting woodblock carvers begins to seem insurmountable. “Ando,” many people ask him, “Why not do four-color printing?” He would prefer to be called Ando-san. The rain on the city streets turns to snow. He leaves the subway at 86th street and walks to the Metropolitan Museum—where the crowds remind him of Tokyo—to spend time in the Oriental galleries. He stares at what he has done in the past.
One day in the Metropolitan, Hiroshige sees a sublime raku teapot, and the longing to return to the past overcomes him. He walks toward the glass case, and as the alarm rings, he spreads his straw wings and is drawn vaporously through the cloudy sky, back in time toward green tea poured into a cup with a pebbled surface in a workroom smelling of wood shavings. He reaches into time and cradles the cup in his hands, feeling the rough stipples on its heavy surface. The brimming warmth anchors him in the familiar.
Jane Christensen grew up in California, and now lives in rural Western Massachusetts.
New York City and Japan are places that changed her mind. Her work has appeared in
Paragraph, the GSU Review, Poetry Midwest, Binnacle, and the Marathon Review. She
is a graduate of Warren Wilson MFA program in fiction. Selected by Gabrielle Bellot.
Image © Sybil Liberty via Flickr Creative Commons.