More Art has produced another fascinating public work of art in New York City: The Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, conceived and performed by Dread Scott. While the title might be a mouthful, so is the concept, an idea that no one seems to want to accept or seriously consider beyond the platitudes spat in cross-fire talking-head vents. Mr. Scott performed the work before two hundred transfixed spectators, many of them school children, under the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn in early October. A video of the work, recently released by More Art and available here, is worth viewing. Neither cute nor clever, it asks us instead what it is that we are doing with our lives in this world we cherish as free?
I did not heed the advice of my drunk friend from Santa Barbara and continued on to another table, the first one in range, and watched myself lurch, hoping, grasping at nothing but air.
“I’ve built my house on you guys.” The dealer was not one to mince words.
I took that as a challenge, brashly proclaiming, “I’m building my house now,” after the occasional win. And then my money was gone, all of it, and I had to return to the machine, stickered in warnings against gambling ills.I sat down with a trio of Turks and battled on. We won a little and then lost, won a little and then lost, and I was at the ATM again.
And then I was alone; it was just me and the dealer and the pit boss, and they almost seemed to be cheering me on. “Got to get a little something something.”
I didn’t know what she meant, but then I was up a few hundred – losses aside – and she gave me an orange, a $500 chip. I would keep that, no matter what. No matter what.I watched my little stacks deplete and then, sadly, had to throw back the orange; and then it was gone too. I only had $25 left and placed it firmly down. I got a 19. I would build back from that; that’s what I thought.
The dealer had Blackjack. “Sorry.”
“Time to go to bed.”
“Get some sleep. We’ll see you soon!”
She could bet on that.
I studied his name tag – Ji-Young – as he changed another $200 into reds. “How do you pronounce your name?”
I tried again.
“60%.” He continued to deal.
I continued to lose. “Yi-juan?”
And then I had a small run going, almost two hundred of money back, but slid again. A new dealer arrived, Dan from Chicago, a fan of the Blackhawks, and I started to win again until Ji-Young returned and with him, my bad luck; I had to buy more chips. It was late, 3 am; the shift changed arrived. My new dealer, Rebecca, was from Korea. I broke even with her and then started to lose again until an affably drunk guy from Santa Barbara sat down. “How you doing?”
“Not so great.”
“I’m drunk.” He looked at his cards; he had a 3 and a 2.
“Should I hit that, Rebecca?”
“Should I hit?”
“You have a 5.”
“Should I hit that?”
She stared at him, irritated her shift had to start with this trouble-maker. “It’s a 5.”
“You from China?”
“Would you hit that in Korea?”
“You want a card?”
He tapped the table. “Hit it.”
“What should I do now?”
“You have a 9.” She was curt.
“A 9? Huh.” He looked at me. “Should I hit it?”
“That’s what the book says.” I always said that.
“Okay.” He tapped the table again.
Rebecca delivered a 6.
He looked up at her, considered it for a moment and then waved his hand. “Stick.”
Rebecca flipped her cards, revealing a 16 and went bust. And It continued like that, the Santa Barbara Drunk giving Rebecca a hard time, only after long deliberation, hitting his 7s and 8s, and Rebecca then going bust. Things began to turn; I was getting my money back.
I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t do anything except stare at the back of the seat in front and wait. I wanted to drink. I needed a drink. I had waited this long, almost four hours, and the plane would be landing soon. I found the stewardess in the back. “Jameson and Budweiser.”
“All right, honey.” The woman folded her magazine and lurched into the tall metal compartment. ”
I offered her a $20.
She shrugged. “I don’t have my machine.”
“I can pay you later.”
“It’s on me, honey.” She went back to her magazine.
I went back to my seat and read and drank. I was finished both in 15 minutes. “Excuse me.” I waved to the stewardess as she passed.
“You want another?” She already had it out for me. “It’s on me.”
“Uh-huh.” She continued down the aisle, leaning forward, like she had had a drink or two herself.
The city appeared out of the dark just as we landed. I had thought about taking the shuttle in but then took the first cab I found. “You mind if I smoke in here?”
The casino was quiet, as quiet as could be with all the lights on and sounds ringing out. And then I was alone in my room, standing there with my can of beer. I waited in the middle, looking out through the sheers at the lights and then the desert. And then I turned and went down. It was time to gamble.
I went to a movie with Justice Stephen Breyer last night. It was a classic: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin. To my surprise, it wasn’t made in the heyday of the Western, but rather 1962, and so revealed a genre on the decline, stumbling between haphazard morality speeches, comic drunken bits and a camera that lingered too long over everything. Justice Breyer loved it though, praising its themes of justice which espoused the eternal need for “Achilles shield” behind lawyers and judges. He went on to reflect upon the process in the Supreme Court, how there were never raised voices, no matter the issue, and that the 5-4 decisions were always different combinations. He added that the experiment of the United States of America, although temporal, would carry on for many more years. (Everyone at the 92nd Street Y applauded that.)
No matter what we know, where we come from, the background we are blessed or damned with, we need to believe, to find a greater truth. We know that what we have is precious; it is what sustains our hope. No matter how we may hide and pretend, that sense of awareness hovers inside, the moment upon waking, lying still, unsure of where we are, that moment in the music, hands suddenly in the air, released. And sadly, that same thing that is bastardized, used against itself, and drives us relentlessly, blindly on.