Chapter I: The Grand Staircase I. THE GRAND STAIRCASE
In the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, below the Arms and Armor wing and outside the guards’ Dispatch Office, there are stacks of empty art crates. The crates come in all shapes and sizes; some are big and boxy, others wide and depthless like paintings, but they are uniformly imposing, heavily constructed of pale raw lumber, fit to ship rare treasures or exotic beasts. On the morning of my first day in uniform I stand beside these sturdy, romantic things, wondering what my own role in the museum will feel like. At the moment I am too absorbed by my surroundings to feel like much of anything.
A woman arrives to meet me, a guard I am assigned to shadow, called Aada. Tall and straw haired, abrupt in her movements, she looks and acts like an enchanted broom. She greets me with an unfamiliar accent (Finnish?), beats dandruff off the shoulders of my dark blue suit, frowns at its poor fit, and whisks me away down a bare concrete corridor where signs warn: Yield to Art in Transit. A chalice on a dolly glides by. We climb a scuffed staircase to the second floor, passing a motorized scissor lift (for hanging paintings and changing light bulbs, I’m told). Tucked beside one of its wheels is a folded Daily News, a paper coffee cup, and a dog-eared copy of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. “Filth,” Aada spits. “Keep personal items in your locker.” She pushes through the crash bar of a nondescript metal door and the colors switch on Wizard of Oz–style as we face El Greco’s phantasmagoric landscape, the View of Toledo. No time to gape. At Aada’s pace, the paintings fly by like the pages of a flip-book, centuries rolling backward and forward, subject matter toggling between the sacred and profane, Spain becoming France becoming Holland becoming Italy. In front of Raphael’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, almost eight feet tall, we halt.
“This is our first post, the C post,” Aada announces. “Until ten o’clock we will stand here. Then we will stand there. At eleven we will stand on our A post down there. We will wander a bit, we will pace, but this, my friend, is where we are. Then we will get coffee. I suppose that this is your home section, the old master paintings?” I tell her yes, I believe so. “Then you are lucky,” she continues. “You will be posted in other sections too eventually—one day ancient Egypt, the next day Jackson Pollock—but Dispatch will post you here your first few months and after that, oh, sixty percent of your days. When you are here”—she stamps twice—“wood floors, easy on the feet. You might not believe it, my friend, but believe it. A twelve-hour day on wood is like an eight-hour day on marble. An eight-hour day on wood is like nothing. Pfft, your feet will barely hurt.”
We appear to be in the High Renaissance galleries. On every wall, imposing paintings hang from skinny copper wires. The room, too, is imposing, perhaps forty feet by twenty, with egress through double-wide doorways leading in three directions. The floor is as mellow as Aada had promised, and the ceiling is high, with skylights aided by lamps pointing down at various strategic angles. There is a single bench near the center of the room, upon which lies a discarded Chinese-language map. Past the bench, a pair of wires dangle loosely toward a conspicuously empty spot on the wall.
Aada addresses it: “You see the signed paper slip,” she says, motioning toward the sole evidence this isn’t a shocking crime scene. “Mr. Francesco Granacci was hanging here, but the conservator has taken him in for a cleaning. He might also have been out on loan, under examination in the curators’ office, or having his picture taken in the photography studio. Who knows? But there will be a slip and that you will notice.”
We pace along a shin-high bungee cable, which keeps us a yard or so from the paintings, and enter the next gallery under our watch. Here, Botticelli appears to be the famous name; and after that there is a third, smaller gallery, dominated by more Florentines. This is our domain until 10 a.m., when we will shift to the three galleries beyond. “Protect life and property—in that order,” Aada continues, beginning to lecture with uniform staccato emphasis. “It’s a straightforward job, young man, but we also must not be idiots. We keep our eyes peeled. We look around. Like scarecrows, we prevent nuisance. When there are minor incidents, we deal with them. When there are major incidents, we alert the Command Center and follow the protocols you learned in your classroom training. We are not cops except for when idiots ask us to be cops, and thankfully it isn’t often. And as it’s the first thing in the morning, there are a couple of things we must do….”
Returning to the Raphael gallery, Aada gets on her tiptoes to stick a key in a lock and open a glass door on to a public stairwell. This done, she casually steps over a bungee cable—a startling transgression to witness—and drops to her haunches beneath a heavy golden frame. “The lights,” she says, indicating switches in the baseboard. “Usually the late watch—that’s the midnight shift—will have turned them on, but in case they haven’t….” She depresses a half dozen switches at once, and we are standing in a long dark tunnel, Renaissance paintings turned into silvery muddles on the walls. She flips the switches up and the lights kick on a gallery at a time with surprisingly loud ka-chunks.
The public starts trickling in about 9:35. Our first visitor is an art student judging by the portfolio under her arm, and she actually gasps to find herself all alone. (Perhaps rightly, she doesn’t count Aada and me.) A French family follows in matching New York Mets caps (which they likely believe to be Yankees caps, the more typical tourist choice), and Aada’s eyes narrow. “For the most part, our visitors are lovely,” she admits, “but these pictures are very old and fragile, and people can be very stupid. Yesterday I was working in the American Wing, and all day long people wanted to seat their children on the three bronze bears! Can you imagine? With the old masters, it’s much better—not so quiet as Asian Art, of course, but a piece of cake compared to the nineteenth century. Of course, everywhere we work we must look out for unthinking individuals. You see? Right there.” Across the way, the French father is reaching over the bungee line, pointing out some Raphaelesque detail to his daughter. “Monsieur!” Aada calls out, somewhat louder than she needs to. “S’il vous plait! Not so close!”
After a little while, an older man saunters into the gallery wearing a familiar suit of clothes. “Oh good, it’s Mr. Ali, an excellent teammate!” Aada says of the guard.
“Ah, Aada, the very best!” he replies, catching and adopting her cadence. Mr. Ali introduces himself as the “relief” on our team (team one, Section B) who is “pushing” us along to our B post.
Aada agrees emphatically. “Ali, you’re first platoon?” she asks.
“Ah, so this is overtime for you…. Mr. Bringley, Mr. Ali started a bit earlier than we did this morning, but he gets to go home at five thirty. He is not tough like you and me, not a third platooner, no, no, he needs to go home to his beautiful wife. You work what days, Mr. Bringley? That’s right, you told me: Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, twelve hours, twelve hours, eight hours, eight hours. It is good. The long days will feel normal and the normal days will feel short, and you will always have that third day off if you want to work OT. Stick with the third platoon, Mr. Bringley. Goodbye, Mr. Ali.”
Our new post brings us both backward and forward in history, covering Italian paintings from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries but also a large adjacent gallery of pictures from France at the time of the Revolution. As we explore, Aada occasionally points out cameras and alarms whose necessity she accepts but to which she condescends. Human workers have her respect, and she is more interested in running down a supporting cast of characters that are almost as important in her eyes as the guards: custodians, our union brothers and sisters; the nurse, who will distribute Excedrin; the elevator man, who’s a contractor and gives himself just one day off a month; two off-duty or retired firefighters on the premises at all times; riggers, who move around heavy art objects; art handlers, or techs, who have the finer touch; carpenters, painters, and mill workers; engineers, electricians, and lampers; and then a lot of people one sees somewhat less, like curators, conservators, and executive types.
This is all very interesting, but I can’t help but notice we are chatting just feet away from the Madonna and Child by Duccio, dating from about 1300. All morning, I haven’t faced up to a painting, and I wonder if I might swing Aada’s attention its way by making reference to its reported $45 million price tag. Aada is only saddened I would say such a vulgar thing. She pulls me in close to the diminutive panel and all but whispers, “You see the blackened singed bits at the bottom of the frame. Burn marks from votive candles. It’s a beautiful picture, isn’t it? These are beautiful pictures, aren’t they? I try to remind these people… the schoolkids, the tourists… I remind them that these are masters. You and I, we work with masters. Duccio. Vermeer. Velázquez. Caravaggio. Compared to what?” She looks over at our American Wing neighbors. “Some picture of George Washington? I mean oh come on now. Be serious.”
Mr. Ali approaches, and from across the gallery makes a jocular push gesture with both arms. This carries us out of the old master wing almost, through a pair of glass doors, and into a mammoth gallery overlooking the museum’s Great Hall. At this busy crossroads, Aada is constantly interrupted by a wide variety of requests: the mummies, the photographs, the African masks, “ancient medical instruments, or something like that?” (To this last, Aada replies confidently, “We have none.”) More than once, she apologizes to me for the quality of these exchanges, insisting that more interesting questions will come our way when there’s quiet. After finishing up a deft set of directions to Degas’s ballerina statue, she taps me and points out a well-tailored man passing by: “A curator in this section, Morgan, or something like that.” We watch as he hurriedly walks past with his eyes on the floor and disappears down the Duccio hallway—“To his office,” Aada tells me, “behind the door with the buzzer in the Rubens gallery.” The irony doesn’t escape either of us. Those of us who spend all day out in the open with the masterpieces, we’re the ones in the cheap suits.