The task assigned to me was to review the entire collection of art in the Resident X exhibit at the Artspace New Haven on 50 Orange St. But I will not discuss the entire exhibit. I will discuss just one of the works, not only because I found it endearing enough to justify every resource expended on the exhibit, but also because I think that it, in a brilliant and concrete way, opens up a direct route to engage the exhibit’s theme — the variety of human belonging.
The work is a small journal, a notebook of observations and applied statistics by Jonathan Gitelson detailing 50 morning commutes on his train to work. Until he set about this project, presumably with the art project financiers’ and creative heads’ suggestion, this was a world he by no means considered “homely.” It was not where he “belonged” — of course not, it was where he came to leave, to move on to elsewhere. Home, generally thought of, is where one goes to stay, to envelop oneself in rest and warmth. So we think, in any case.
But then he begins to pay attention to all the minutia. Daily, he records actual train arrival times and optimal spots for boarding, inscribes letters into various chairs and orders it into the notebook, the very one on display in the gallery.
On day 15, he first notices the worn yellow lines and is remarkably bemused. How many years had he gone without seeing them? And of course he has no idea what their purpose is.
Early on, Gitelson notices a ticket clerk bringing his breakfast to work every day, approximately the same time he arrives for his morning train. A grapefruit and three oranges. Initially, Gitelson notices the clerk’s breakfast sometimes, while other times he forgets — you can see it become something noticeable as part of his daily life. By day 17, if he forgets, he has to explain why, as though to assuage some guilt in him for not recording what the clerk had for breakfast. Incidentally, for the next three days he keeps thinking he has missed the meal. By day 19, he suspects that perhaps the clerk has changed his habits. On day 20, Gitelson decides the breakfast ordeal is over. On day 21, the breakfast is back but with raisins now instead. It is around now that Giterson begins to wonder if this whole enterprise of being hung up on another man’s morning meal was stupid. From day 22 onward, the clerk’s breakfast officially becomes an immovable statistic on the upper page, no longer with the additional notes. On day 34, the clerk indulges in three muffins with one orange.
On day 35, Gitelson notices the clerk is not at his post. He assumes he is on reprieve. There are new men, but they eat no breakfast in the morning. They seem “exceedingly professional.” “All business,” Gitelson says. On day 39, Gitelson worries that the clerk has been fired.
Day 40: He smiles at Gitelson. The page is one of the happier of the 50, if not the happiest.
On day 41, Gitelson tries to smile back to build a better repertoire. The clerk is too involved in his newspaper to notice.
On day 42, Gitelson, in anticipation of the deadline of his notebook, thinks to eventually photograph the clerk’s breakfast for posterity. Today, to “soften him up,” Gitelson says good morning.
On day 47, Gitelson nervously asks for a photograph. The clerk is perturbed but begrudgingly agrees, so long as he is not in the photo. Gitelson takes a photo of the remaining oranges and rind on the bland, brown desk.
On day 48, the clerk is obviously spooked. He avoids eye contact at all costs.
On day 49, the clerk is actively dodging Gitelson.
Day 50, notebook ends.
Given all of human history — that is to say, alcohol, every failed relationship, every “successful” relationship, motherhood as a concept, motherhood as an experience, nationalism, Dido’s suicide, opioid epidemics, every person named “Chad,” every person named “Saul,” every person named “Paul,” the existence of body pillows with faces on them, old married couples dying shortly after one another, the concept of “we,” online chat rooms, smoke dens, crucifixions, wine tasting, cannibalism and everything else in the Bible — I don’t think it is unfair for me to claim there is no “home” for us. There is no natural place of belonging, and the promised image of Eden doesn’t exist even far enough for us to have been cast out. We aren’t in the shadow of a memory of home. It’s all bright and open, unmarred, without roof nor walls in sight to hold us in our moments of uncanny fear. We are thick capsules of water with the property of anxiety.
But this is not a death sentence; in fact, this is precisely the opposite. It is only because the world out there is unconquered, and our hearts essentially vulnerable, that we can “territorialize” any portion of earth that happens to be under our feet, and the strange, murky halls surrounding us can become properly comfortable, because of their alien quality, not despite it.
Gitelson’s project evokes this capacity of ours in spades. It’s only because of his tenacious, open heart a space that was previously regarded as mere routine, a site for his coming and going. Because he extended his attention and his care for a place that continuously lent him its support, to its people, patterns, breakfasts, being there — in other words, the whole of the train station’s dwelling, Gitelson revealed to us the intimate texture of human living and the complexity that comprises every facet of it, especially the minutia. How often did Gittelson overlook the clerk and his morning meals? The yellow lines? Obviously, the clerk needs to eat in order to stay alive and provide tickets. Obviously the yellow lines are necessary for whatever task they serve. All these details are necessary for the operation of the train station. Home isn’t a place to be found; it is a relationship to build and sustain — one available everywhere in our everyday experience. Following Gitelson’s project, we can only wonder that if places like train stations, in our 15-minute encounters, possess these endearing complexities and we overlook them, what else in our everyday lives do we take for granted? What else goes as unnoticed as train stations?
Logan Zelk | firstname.lastname@example.org