The smell was almost pleasurable, in the wholesome, natural way that the smell of sawdust or rain is. I rested my hands on the glass barrier separating me from the room of dirt. I had read that it weighed over a quarter million tons and the first thing I thought about was the building’s structural integrity. Now, actually standing in front of the Earth Room, my mind drifted from Manhattan’s lower east side to some hazy midwest destination, of corn and other basic agricultural staples growing out of dirt tilled over every day, of young children with muddy feet running through a backyard, of retirees lovingly examining their gardens under bright blue skies.
Adam had told me it was called the Earth Room, one of those ambitious art pieces that radical schools so adored in the 20th century’s last decades. It was just that; a room full of earth, dirt, feet of it, layers upon layers contrasted with the stark white walls that held it in. It was located on the second floor of a loft that we had had some difficulty locating. A permanent exhibition. I ran my hand along the surface of the dirt and was disappointed when it was clumpy and not fine and smooth. I stepped back from the opening and let the people behind me have a look.
We walked down Wooster Street, next to each other. It was early afternoon on a Tuesday. By a stroke of corporate luck, we had both had the day off. The weather was slightly overcast. I kicked gravel with my shoes as we walked.
“There’s another cool one a little up the street,” he said. “Called the ‘Dream House’.”
“Ooh,” I said. “Sounds like shag carpeting. Lava lamps.” He laughed.
We stopped at a pizza place on the corner of Canal and Church Street and split a cheese pizza, sitting across from one another in a booth. “Aren’t we, supposed to, you know, talk about what it all meant?” I asked, wiping grease off my face. “You know, like those art critiques back in college?”
“It seemed crushing, it reminded be of being, like, buried alive. Not claustrophobic. Not even overwhelming. I guess just how it all sat there.”
“I wonder if they clean it. Polish off the fingerprints, mop, put up “no flash photography” signs?”
“Did you hear the people in front of us? They said, “it’s just dirt”. They weren’t wrong.” We laughed. I took a drink of water.
June 6. It had been exactly four years since I moved away from my Illinois hometown, a week after graduating college. I told Andrew this, and he asked me if it made me nostalgic. A little. For the earth I had known in my youth, scrubbing it out of my fingers late at night, shower water dark from playing barefoot outside, games of hide-and-seek, kick-the-can, or catching fireflies at night, driveways, sheds, swing sets.
We walked a couple more blocks down Church Street and climbed two flights of stairs to the third floor of an apartment. A middle aged lady with a name tag sat outside. “Welcome to the Dream House”, she said. We each placed a couple dollars in those see-through plastic donation boxes you see at museums.
“I often think of places I’ve only visited in dreams,” I told Adam as we entered the Dream House, walking down a long hallway. “There’s this old boulevard from this dream I had a long time ago. The entrance to some hiking trail I went to with my parents in a dream. The basement of my grandparent’s house, but somehow, different.”
“I do the same,” he replied. “It is, I guess, a sort of nostalgia.”
The room was spacious, no furniture save for some pillows scattered around the floor. Colorful lights gave the otherwise white walls rich purple-pink hues. A neon sign on the ceiling spelled “the dream house” forwards and backwards. A couple speakers were playing a throbbing, minimalist composition. “La Monte Young,” Adam identified.
“Some of these places, though, I feel like if I actually thought long enough and hard enough about them they feel so real I could go there.”
Adam was staring at the wall. I laid down on my back and stared up at the ceiling. Smoke drifted around the room. A woman was doing yoga on the other side of the room; another was on her knees mouthing a prayer with her eyes closed. A very old man sat on one of the pillows, listening to the music and reading a thick novel. A high school aged kid wearing designer clothing held hands with his girlfriend, both standing near the entrance of the hallway, unsure of what to do. Adam meandered back over to me. “Is this what you thought New York was going to be like?” He asked. I laughed and nodded.
We walked over to the other side of the room and looked out of pink windows to a street of storefronts and restaurants and apartments. But I didn’t see the city. I closed my eyes. And then I drifted back in time, a smattering of feeling dispersing before I could place them, file them away to make sense of them later. Then I was in a backyard somewhere in Illinois, sitting in a folding chair outside watching the sunset, completely still, feeling like all my insides were sinking down to the bottom of my body. Feet vibrating still from a long day. Wiping sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand.
It was just me, alone, and the sun from behind the trees, bugs like drops of gold swirling in the air, languid cars, pavement, patches where the grass never seemed to grow, cobwebs draped between branches, the sound of the train, porch light clicking on, all traveling away from me.