Philosophy of Navigation

As told to Nicolas Calvero by Arbor Smith

With transcribing by Linda Aragon
Photo by Joe Anderson

"Imagine," said the voice. "No street signs. No cell phones. No maps or compasses. Just trees and buildings and people."

These ruminations were coming from a rotund young man named Arbor, who was reclining in a tepid bath. The faucet dripped ponderous drops into the tub, counting the seconds. It was dusk and red light came in through the windows. I could hear typing in the neighboring room.

Arbor stood up in a great, unthinking movement, and a rush of water sucked back from his considerable frame. Within minutes he was fully clothed in a jacket accented by a claret-colored scarf. We descended into the street and began walking very quickly. Arbor continued:

"Once," he said, his breath foggy. "I was walking to a concert at the philharmonic. It was late and I was upset about the possibility of upsetting my date. We had met on a train earlier that month. She had a striking resemblance to Louise Brooks: obsidian black hair and eyes equally as dark. She had a habit of getting into heated arguments about subjects people don't usually argue about. You know, like the way someone looks at someone else or why they enjoyed something. I was walking very quickly, you know, and my mind was preoccu..."

Just then we stopped in front of a tunnel of scaffolding. He looked up and put his hand through his still damp hair.

"No,this can't be it. It's not right. The color is wrong. The scaffolding was lower to the sidewalk."

As he spoke, he traced the differences with his hand and frequently looked back at Charlotte, who was precariously balancing a typewriter.

"It was similar to this, but it was later out, and dark. The street lamp," he said, pointing up. "It was broken, so the only light was coming from a bare bulb hanging from some wood inside the scaffolding."

"I thought nothing of it of course, and sort of barreled through, trying to make it to this damn concert, some Philip Glass concerto, or whatever. I don't remember. I was walking, you see, and suddenly it occurred to me that this seemed to be a rather long tunnel. I could see no street or sky, just the corrugated roof and the wooden walls, held together by planks. It surrounded me and the light was dramatic because there were only these bare bulbs, you see. I sort of came to, and started thinking: This is like a cave with no end. But I wasn't worried, really. I thought it might be a funny anecdote to tell later on, maybe to my date during intermission or an after-dinner drink.

"But as I kept walking I came to a place where the scaffolding branched into two directions. It seemed like I had been walking for blocks, and now, I had literally no idea where I was. Which way, I thought? Creeping into my mind, which by now, was quite alert, was a kind of dread - it was the vertigo you get from having no bearings. I took a left and walked for what seemed like several blocks. And then, you won't believe it. There was another branching of the path into two directions. I started to jog a little, taking innumerable left and right turns. There was no pattern to my decisions, just impulse and fear. I was clearly lost and there was nothing to give me a sense of direction.

"I spun around, trying to find at least a crack to see though, but it was airtight: just planks and sheets of wood, bare bulbs, the metal ceiling ten feet fromthe ground. I began running and even yelling 'Hello! Can anyone hear me?'"

"There was nothing but this maze of scaffolding, blocks and blocks of it, and a deathly quiet. I could only hear my echoing foot steps as I searched, frantically now, for an exit. The concert was the least of my problems."

"Finally I just stopped in my tracks and looked at my watch. The show had started half an hour earlier, which meant I had been immersed in this nightmare, this unbelievable urban contraption, for more than 45 minutes. There was a sheen of sweat across my head. I simply sat down."

"I breathed, focusing on the simplicity of it. I was trying to understand what was happening. This kind of thing simply doesn't happen, you know. Cityplanners could never device such a place. There must be streets that cut through the scaffolding somewhere. People live in these buildings, don't they? What about fire safety, and not to mention tourists? If I, a professor of geography, was having a nervous break-down, what about a family from Kansas in town to see the bright lights?"

Arbor started walking again. This time we strolled at a more meditative pace. His eyes deepened, he spoke slower.

"My emotions were all over the place. I was angry that some bureaucracy - some vast structure of contractors, sub-contractors, buyers, sellers, land-owners, builders, workers where no one properly consults with another - had created this freak of passageways. Such a thing could entirely consume a person. But, gradually, I started feeling something different wash over me. I had no sense of place, no cell phone reception, my watch didn't give me any reference. I was lost, damnit, and somehow it was wonderful, too. I was, for once, not completely distracted. I felt some kind of clarity. I stood up and began to stroll, at ease and lost and hopefully never to be found again. I was lost! Who gets lost anymore?"

"And steeped in this clear air, this simple structure, I walked and had many vivid thoughts about my place in this world. Then suddenly, the whole city came rushing back to me. I looked up and saw the sky, and I heard honks and whistles and chatter. There was a small cafe with a thousand small, yellow lights, and people hunched over tables, speaking quietly to each other. It was bright and complex, and for some reason, you don't believe this, but I felt more lost than ever."

A Note About the Transcription

By Linda Aragon

It was bizarre how Mr. Smith insisted on conducting the interview from his bathtub. That struck me, for sure.

You see I had been recruited to accompany Mr. Calvero out on an assignment and transcribe his interviews. We arrived at the building, a stately brownstone on East 78th Street, and knocked on the door. I could make out a faint voice, saying "Come in! Do come in! I've been expecting you." I quickly went about typing out this first discourse from the typewriter I wore attached to my waist. It is a rather strange-looking piece of equipment and I often get looked at in the street, but it gets the job done. Several levers and well greased gears allow me to walk and type at the same time.

Really, I'm not sure what those two were going on about. From my notes, their topics included sextants, the use of clouds, seafaring in the modern age, the ideology of a particular tribe in South America that "lived for generations in the nearly pitch dark conditions under the jungle canopy" (they were mostly blind, but other sensory organs became more sensitive,) cultivating orange trees with solar power, and some kind of ticking sculpture (see Reactive Monument).

Here is one interesting exchange that my husband and I were baffled over for days.

NC: And in Spain?
(drip, drip, drip ...)
AS: Well, once I landed I immediately drove out on one of these grand roads along the coast to find the villa of a good friend of mine. Name of Conchis - a Greek. We had served for a time together as consultants on a project that ... well, that's a completely different story. We'll get to it later.
But, well you know, I got completely lost and ended up in some town with mountain goats wandering around on cliffs. It was dusty and I had to cover my mouth with a handkerchief as I stumbled into a small tavern to ask for directions. Inside, there was only the sound of an old radio on the bar playing an old Spanish folk song. The rusty speakers made it sound like a broadcast from another time, that somehow the radio was picking up signals from fifty years ago. It was remarkable.
Sitting at the bar was an old man, and he slowly looked up at me and said in Spanish: What do you know of dinosaurs? And what's more, what do you know of men?
Of course, I was baffled and I sat a few stools down from him. A young boy took my order and I had a long drink of beer before responding.
I said to him: "I see men everywhere, even you, but somehow I feel I know dinosaurs better."
Coughing a bit, he said: "Ha, I knew it. You are a scientist and you cannot understand that which is not already dead and buried for a million years. Consequently, you'll never find what you are looking for unless you are lost."

Just when I thought the interview was over, when Mr. Smith was saying something about maps and compasses, he stood up in the bathtub completely naked! I made three errors at that very moment, which I'm sure I'll have to answer for back at the main office. I shielded my eyes, but I saw that he was quite portly and had a lengthy scar down his back, like the tear in the pages of a book.

We went outside and I was barely able to keep up with him as he rambled on again about some kind of date that he missed and a maze of scaffolding. When they were finished, Mr. Calvero turned to me and said: "The interview is over." They left me on the sidewalk and headed in opposite directions.

There were a total of 22 errors in my transcribing. I accommodated in those circumstances by using context clues. For instance, there was a smudge over a word "-ight." I was not sure if it meant, "night" or "light," but I assumed from the tone that Mr. Smith meant the latter.

In this issue:


THE Philosophy of Navigation

New Black Towers: A history in 10 chapters

Where Has It Gone?


Free Lunch

Reactive Monument


The Banality of Disbelief

4D Document

Investigating time and space

Previous Editions

July 2007

About the Moon

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