The narrow brick stairwells that wind the guts of the old art museum will, without a doubt, remain entirely intact in the event of a nuclear holocaust. Their dusty beige color encroaches no more than an extra inch on either side, and the individual bricks themselves seem centimeters wider and taller than the standard, although perhaps it is the lines of cement between them that are more than usually thick. The lighting fixtures are a quiet white barely tinged with yellow warmth, with a focus on the landings that spills magnanimously down across the flights. The unobtrusive bulbs, once considered, exude the dimness of an emergency electrical system, albeit a powerful one, and they never flicker. All together, these dimensions leave the traveler with an impression that the concrete walls extend for miles on either side, above and below — an ambience one finds oddly comforting when one has sought the stairwell voluntarily.
I first discovered these stairwells in pursuit of a chicken caesar salad. That is, the museum’s kitchen staff plays house in the deepest recesses of the lowest level of the building, situated thoroughly beneath sea level and lending a whole new meaning to the term “underbelly.” Even elevator rides down to the catering suite feel illicit, and the sentiment is compounded by the fact that the chefs and the servers always look at me as though I’ve intruded upon some cavern of villainous secrecy. “Your business casual has no business here,” they glare from cracked doorways as I pass. Judging by the sometime quality of their chicken caesar salads, I’m inclined to believe this may really be the case.
At any rate, when I began work at the museum in October, I was given a cursory tour of the facilities. Here are the galleries, here are the offices, here is the break room, here is the broad fluorescent tunnel connecting the separate buildings and serving as the designated site of refuge should the National Weather Service issue a tornado warning, and so on. Staff lunches can be retrieved from the C-level, in the little room with the big refrigerator at the back left of the hall. I was informed about the staff elevator as a means of accessing the C-level, because the stairwell from O to A behind the box office ends at B and so a winding route to C from A is required. Because in six months I never met a stairwell that passed B on descending route to C, I suppose I assumed such a passage did not exist.
And I was satisfied with the elevator, truly, because the time it takes to find and climb the stairs cuts so significantly (percentage-wise) into a thirty-minute lunch break that I cut my losses and I rested assured that a daily chicken caesar salad of questionable caliber was due penance for the negligence of my twenty-two-year-old calf muscles. It was not until my recent morning perusal of a Times piece on the violence done to your metabolism by a quotidian seated desk job that I determined to search again for a manual means of traversing the institution’s various levels.
A museum of art is a conflict incarnate, a body beset by the desire to rebel, and to question, and to unsettle, but bound by the standards of beauty and public funding. The ugliness here is glossy, well-lit, trim and cultured. I forget from my desk, gazing out to a green sunlit plaza, but the statue out front never does.
It’s a Rodin, a female figure with her left leg bent as though climbing the stairs that I seek. Her knee reaches forward at such a high angle that I imagine the stairs in Rodin’s time were much steeper, or perhaps she’s ascending a mountain instead. Her dark steely torso bends forward, as if in prayer, and her heavy head with it, nearly touching her angled thigh in ambiguous deference to the galleries she faces. Her arms have been clipped by the century.
“She was part of his Gates of Hell, you know,” a gruff volunteer offers from across the lobby. “Scenes from The Inferno.” He ambles slowly over to the desk with the air of someone well aware of my age in relation to his, and well-accustomed to women who do not talk back. Or at all, in his presence. His shirt is a garish plaid. He has followed my gaze past the fountains to the clay woman — Naked Muse, actually — and together we admire her shape. For him, I can only imagine it’s her deference that draws. For me, it’s the way I imagine her heart is slightly broken, but still beating as she climbs.
“Look alive, now,” he grins. “Quiet day?” I smile back and mumble assent, and my eagerness for him to leave quickly has at least now distracted me from the boredom that first spawned my rumination on the muse. It is, in fact, a quiet day. There is little to do but to watch the green daylight pass through the lobby doors, be outshone by the overheads and swallowed up by the painted walls within. Something about protecting the art from ultraviolet; exposure to heavy photons will damage the work. The effects of selective lighting are quite powerful, aesthetic as well as preservational.
Hours pass here in April with little real sound, only spurts and bursts of activity that roll in like waves on unreliable winds. There’s an irate patron here, a group of elementary schoolers there; but mostly, we are tucked away and set back from the beaten paved roads. No one stumbles upon us. Most days, there are more staff in this place than there are visitors. We are salespeople. It’s our job to make sure you believe you should pay, that passing time within these walls might put food in our mouths. We are business folk, with all this art. Afternoons, I retreat to the darker recesses of the galleries, in search of a space that reflects my sleepy mind. This is pretty, that one’s red, this is neon, that one moves, each one taken in with a serenity born of quiet more than peace. I never linger long, never let myself get lost; after all, I am on the corporate clock, and I walk quickly right back to the cash box.
The mornings are a haze, before, during, and after strong coffee. I’ll have skipped eating breakfast and my stomach growls into midday as the caffeine sets in and noon-thirty rolls around. It was this time of morning (noon-noon-thirty is still morning), yesterday when I first found the stairs.
I do not quite know what it was that drew me like a magnet to the concreted hermitage at the heart of the old art museum. Maybe it was the coffee. Maybe it was the hunger. It was certainly more than the Times, and, I believe, largely due to the fact that my calves carried some kind of spiritual atrophy. One can only take the elevator down two flights for so long, before the urge to stretch and push with human muscles takes all over. So yesterday, I diverted, and I guessed, and I guessed right.
There’s a doorway set back from the caterers’ cavern, through a jungle of aprons and boxes of bottles of wine stacked across silver shelves. It is ivyed by plastic, to-go ware and bags, with a “No” sign of some sort gazing calmly out from above the handle. “No Entry,” or “Alarm Sounds,” or “Beware of Dog,” or even no sign but a tightly locked latch; that’s what I expected to find upon closer inspection of this particular door. But instead, I found tiny, clean type suggesting “Staff Only,” and no guard or no camera anywhere near to raise doubts. Yesterday, down in C level, it was quiet as a morgue. I remarked to myself, and rapidly lost my tired appetite for grilled chicken. It’s a good thing, too, because I’ve yet to leave that stairwell.
I had walked past that doorway a hundred times before I considered it might be of any significance to me. I can’t say that the decision to try it this time was the result of any reasoned consideration. I felt just as though my feet and hands were not my own, but that I had borrowed them, and they moved through the door before I realized I was gone.
Everything appeared normal at first.
Normal, that is, for a thick concrete stairwell at the center of an art museum’s underground. It was quiet, and I felt alone — the way one likes to feel in a stairwell, especially such a narrow one. I did not go there to meet anyone, or to squeeze tightly past someone briefcased and hurried. That is not why I work in an art museum. I was drawn to the stillness, the silence, the centering, and that is precisely what I found.
So I stood for a moment, appreciating the arrival of this newfound haven, and I began to descend. I felt floaty and cushioned, delighting in the solitude of this great secret space. I passed the first landing and arrived at the second, which diverted down a short hall to a doorway that led to another doorway to another flight down. I can only imagine it was a question of weight distribution and plumbing and foundational organization that led to this apparently superfluous convolution, but it felt like a pretty game, a lunchtime maze for me to solve, an easy puzzle. I continued descending.
When I passed the tenth landing, I remembered that I had not yet eaten. Although I was not particularly hungry, due to consuming infatuation with the stairs, I had already paid for the salad, and I knew I’d be kicking myself upon returning to my desk if I neglected to eat something now. I would reverse directions, I decided, and ascend to the C level I was now far below. But first, I would try a few more floors, a few more doorways; I would see just how deep I could go.
It was hours before I gave up. I passed windows. I saw a bird’s nest. There was a screen showing women at work on a broken car. There were light shows, marquees, a ticker tape, and, at times, there were the sounds of a soft violin. My legs carried me down with odd ease. It was only when I gleaned that I would never reach the bottom that I finally paused for a breath, before turning my gaze back upward. I stood poised on the landing and was filled with the sensation that, to the untraveled eye, every floor in this stairwell appeared exactly the same. This spot, miles below where I started, could just as well have been a photograph of the bricks behind that first portal.
I began to ascend. Up, past the marquees, the tickers, the lights, past the women whose car was now fixed and rattling recklessly down a sunny, windy highway. The birds had become butterflies, flitting in corners and dancing with my shoulders, but never quite landing. I was hours below C level and I am surely now miles above, though I’ve yet to find the door that I need. I’ve found the lights are growing brighter as the air’s becoming thinner, and the violins are playing waltzes in the major key. It’s intoxicating, this height, and this safe, sure path that only travels two directions.
When I return finally to my desk, Sarah Jane will remark that I always finish lunch with a few minutes leftover. “How was your salad?” she’ll ask, and she really might care. We’ll agree that the volunteer doesn’t know what time this building closes, let alone anything at all about Rodin, and we’ll count our drawers and clean our phones. And I’ll forget the depths and the heights that I saw; I’ll remember them as some strange dream. I’ll fear the stairs I want to take. When I return — if I return — the Naked Muse will kneel, saluting.