Saturday, April 11th, 2020
It was overcast and cold when I walked out the front door toward my bike yesterday afternoon. You barely need to look both ways before crossing these days, but it’s a good habit to keep. No cars were coming, and even fewer were parked along the street than a week ago.
Stepping off the curb, I noticed a cigarette butt. Hardly noteworthy, though they are increasingly rare these days, almost no one smokes in New York anymore. That significant shift in our society is not unlike the change we are experiencing now. But these recent changes happened in days, while people’s smoking habits shifted over decades—five of them. The flattened butt had an elegant oblique angle between the white paper and the orange-yellow filter.
The cigarette fragment reminded me of a significant collection of cigarette butts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The butts were in what used to be called the Islamic Wing. Certainly none were accessioned objects, and I doubt many curators have seen them. The collection was spread out over the upper surface of the museum’s early 16th century “Spanish Ceiling,” possibly the largest piece in their entire collection. The butts appeared to have been sown like squash seeds rather than arranged by an exhibit designer. I was there, above the ceiling, to figure out a plan for documenting and then lowering the huge ceiling panels to the ground ahead of a major gallery upgrade.
Each butt had landed on very old and dry raw wood; by luck or care (in carefully extinguishing each one), they had caused no harm. The Objects Conservation Department swept them up before our team arrived to lower the 13 heavy sections of the mudéjar style Moorish ceiling to the ground in early 2004.
Entire worlds exist above the high-ceilinged, skylit galleries of the Met and other major 20th-century art museums, all invisible to the public. The southern end of the Met’s Fifth Avenue array of buildings was designed by McKim, Mead and White. The large 1913 addition included impressive high-ceilinged naturally-lit galleries with an extensive network of suspended steel service catwalks. In the early part of the last century, such empty interstitial space was not at the premium it is today; every square inch did not need to be monetized.
This 15–20-foot-high glassed-in area was a magical place. The suspended walkways allowed access to impossible to reach areas, like wetlands or fragile sand dunes in a national park. It’s almost a miracle that they survived several years into this century, and it is certainly a perfect place to sneak away for a peaceful smoke.
I doubt that any forensic work was done before the butts were removed. There were at least 40 (probably more), which is a lot—but not so many if someone had a smoke on each shift. I could make up tales about how they all got there, but there are no facts available.
Seconds after I stepped over the butt near the curb on Sullivan Street, a man with laser focus appeared and picked it up with a clear intention to smoke it. No disinfecting wipe needed. He lit it and managed to get at least three or four drags from the less than half-inch-long discard.
I have been wondering about the word “hero” recently. After 9/11, the word was used constantly—too much, like the ever-present American flags of those days. Now, we have people in single-color baggy uniforms—no epaulets, creases, buttons, or sewn-on stripes. Some have traveled significant distances to get to this city to risk their lives, one long shift after another. As we struggle with the often relatively minor difficulties of our own lives under quarantine, these people step directly into the line of fire, caring for others who need help. So far, they are “healthcare workers” or sometimes “doctors,” but not “heroes.”