There is a room with a very high ceiling on the 5th floor of what was the largest brownstone in the world when they built it. The room is shaped on the west by the angle of 4th Avenue as it runs to meet Bowery Lane, and is further indented on the west by the backside of the round elevator shaft built by Peter Cooper to house the elevator upon its invention. Every light in the ceiling has a slightly different tone. The shades are open if their pulleys aren’t broken and through the windows is the taupey glow of street lights, and the red of car brake lights bounce off of the windows of the buildings across the street as traffic pauses, resumes, speeds up, halts, pauses, resumes, and so on. Twenty people who have each existed about 17 years sit around several white formica topped tables. Every one has just written for several minutes in 1-subject notebooks beginning with the phrase “There is something I have been meaning to tell you…” Some students sit very close to the table, pressed to it by the elevator shaft’s diameter. They await the voices. Then they begin. Going in a circle from the first to raise a hand, clockwise they take a breath and speak.The clock is three years behind. On the 8th floor the men stood and watched from behind the clock in the sharp light of mid morning as the women turned their backs and moved downstairs, where they sit around a table in a windowless room.
10 people sit variously posed in rough circle, angled on the east going inward south by the Bowery, light traveling into their eyeballs in the shapes of the letters of St. Mark’s Hotel except the one that is out. There is silence and they long after the moment of understanding. Know already whether they have achieved communication. Almost know before they enter the room. Having spent 20 to 25 years on earth, they are completely responsible. Completely responsible for producing understanding. But the sense of sound without earth’s force of gravity pervades their attempts. The universe follows the eternal growth model and consequently its emptiness increases.There is something we have said, but the vibrations of our voice boxes end where they begin and nothing tunnels into the ears. The universe has misplaced its Q-tips.
Downtown under the dome of sky whose atmosphere reflects back city lights hundreds of bodies are touched all over by the night air. Light bounces off of their forms and their cardboard signs into the camera lenses of high school students, and again from their negatives onto their pieces of photography paper, and again into the 5th floor lobby of the Cooper Union where they look out from the walls.
On the 7th floor at 8pm the ghost passed down the south stairwell, causing the door to widen open for a moment.
On the sidewalk in the afternoon a hundred people wonder in separate groups about the story. Mark Twain wrote: “the man spent the rest of his life hunting up shingles wherewith to protect his Truth from the weather.” Without roofs or walls they write and rewrite in many languages, and gradually they form their explanations, and at night they will grow busy in their compositions, and tomorrow they will show them to us
This writing is occasioned for me by the discussion, which became public in late October, between Cooper Union’s new President and some members of the Board of Trustees, as to whether The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, founded “to improve and elevate the working classes of the City of New York”, which has not charged tuition to any of its undergraduate students for the past hundred and nine years, could begin to charge the incoming class of 2013 and beyond. The concept of transforming the school’s educational-economic model into a tuition-based (perhaps even profit-based) model of most American higher education programs was introduced alongside the revelation that Cooper Union’s financial deficit, the President and head of the Board Mark Epstein say, will reach a crisis point if allowed to continue for three more years. Cooper Union’s endowment reached the height of $600 million in 2008. However, like a great number of individuals and institutions, its successes apparently rested on the assumption that the stock market would recover and economic growth would resume in order to pay for its loans and inflating costs. Now occupied with scrambling to uncover the details of the situation and creating solutions, the community does not understand why a proposal which would fundamentally alter the spirit of the institution, with an explanatory impending financial crisis, was presented instead of a public forum on the issue of the deficit itself, how it came about, and how to resolve it using our collective resources so that Cooper Union may continue to be a place where people come together, not pay, to do service to the global community by means of science and art.
Words by Annabel Roberts-McMichael
Image by Nolan Hermann